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How do the words you use affect your children?

Being mindful of your words is a simple yet powerful way to help children develop confidence, resilience, trust and self-esteem. Here we highlight six ways parents can raise their awareness of the words they use and how they use them.

NEWS 27 July 2023

How many times have words come out of your mouth – perhaps because you were tired, stressed, frustrated or busy – and you said something to your child that you instantly regretted? Or perhaps we sometimes say things without even realising the potential impact they have on younger hearts and minds.

There’s no doubt that words can have more power than we realise and we don’t always fully consider how a child will interpret what we say and how their understanding of what has been said can encourage or dishearten.

“I’m sure all parents have heard words come out of their child’s mouth and then realised their child got that expression from them. Our children learn their first words and the many words that follow from us,” says Diane Furusho, Haileybury’s Deputy Principal – Student Wellbeing.

“Children are listening and learning from us so, if we say something we regret in front of our children, we need to explain that we made a mistake and the words that we used weren’t kind. This allows children to learn to own their words and express regret when they also say the wrong thing.”
Diane Furusho, Deputy Principal Student Wellbeing Haileybury

So how can you use your words wisely?

  • Explain what your words really mean. “Initially, young children don’t understand what might have happened if you suddenly yell at them to stop them running on to the road, or if you tell them what they need to do better. They just hear words that tell them Mum or Dad is angry or upset with them,” says Paul Dooley, Head of Junior School at Haileybury’s Keysborough campus. “So, when the situation is calmer, explain the context and what your words really meant.”
  • Provide positive encouragement... “When your child is learning to write their name, they might reverse a letter,” says Lisa Christopher, Director of Early Learning Services. “You can then say ‘you’ve done this and this letter right – that’s great, and you’re still learning this letter. That’s great. Let’s practice that’. Those words tell your child they are learning and that you are there to help.” You can use this kind of positive encouragement in any area of life where your child has mastered some skills and has some areas that still need improvement. However, explain why you are praising or encouraging them eg you played great at netball today. I can see all that training is making a difference.
  • …But be aware of over-praising. When it comes to handing out praise, it’s true that you can have too much of a good thing. If you constantly tell your child they are the best and then they find themselves in a class of children where they are not the best at certain things, that can shake their confidence. “If a child has always been told they are good at everything and then they come across someone who is better than them, or if they eventually fail at something, they may choose not to participate in something or create reasons not to attempt the activity again for fear of failing,” says Paul. “Failure builds resilience and character so when you do praise your child, make sure it’s realistic, and also praise the attempts, not just the outcomes.”
  • Look through the lens of your child before you speak. If you are going to speak to your child about something they have or haven’t done, remember to look at things through their perspective before you open a conversation. “We look at a situation through the lens of an adult but often, a child is just in the moment and thinking about then and there,” says Paul. “If your child is tired and you are arguing over getting homework done, don’t push it and end up saying something you regret later. You will be at loggerheads and you will get a more positive result the next day. Think about where your child is at right at that time.”
  • Think about gender-based language. Daddy’s little princess…Mummy’s little man… Diane suggests avoiding gender-based stereotypes as much as possible. “Do you really want your daughter to be a princess? Young girls are impressionable and their understanding of a princess comes from stories where the princess is always rescued by a man,” says Diane. “Words like ‘princess’ conjure up the need to look pretty and we want girls to be strong and confident and not value themselves based on how they look.” Similarly, using language that suggests boys must be masculine, strong and tough may mean they feel uncomfortable showing their emotions.
  • Discuss words that don’t fit your family’s values. If you hear your child using words that are unkind or negative, explain why you don’t want them to use those words. So if your child refers to someone as ‘fat’, instead say that it’s more valuable to focus on the inside rather than on someone’s looks. If they call someone an ‘idiot’ or ‘stupid’ instead explain that everyone still has things to learn and everyone makes mistakes – that’s not ‘stupid’. It's just life. “For younger children, ask them why they’ve used a specific word. They may not really know what it means so when they do use an unsuitable word, it’s an opportunity to talk about why another word might be better,” says Diane.

Wellbeing webinar

Watch our recent myWellbeing webinar on 'How do the words you use affect your children?'

Hosted by Diane Furusho, Lisa Christopher and Paul Dooley, the panel shed light on the unforeseen impact our words can have on young and impressionable hearts and minds.