Words work both ways: What you say to your kids becomes their inner voice (pt 1)
What you say to your kids becomes their inner voice.
Perhaps, the most under-estimated dimension of my parenting is the words I speak, or don’t speak, to my children.
Recently, back from his first day back at school, Fynn (5) proudly told Julie and I something that inspired this post…
‘Today, me and my fwiends found a little kid who was bwand new in the school. So we started to chase him. He was wunning, wunning. I was about to jump on him, but then I did hear mommy’s words in my head: ‘Fynn, be kind.’ So I stopped in the air. And I told my fwiends, ‘No guys, stop chasing him.’’
Julie’s words – long after they were spoken – spared not only Fynn from a crazy course of action, but also a little terrified 4 year old from his nightmare unfolding.
Bones broken by sticks and stones have healed, but who I am today (the good, the bad and the ugly) has a lot to do with the words others have spoken to me, or over me – especially the words of my parents in my formative years.
It doesn’t always seem like our words take root, I know. Especially when I have repeated myself a zillion times. How many times Julie and I have pep-talked our two year old! ‘Ivy, when you meet people, smile and say hello. And no angry eyes okay.’ To no avail. Each time the angry eyes come out, striking terror into the most self-assured adult.
But then, weeks after we’d given up on our briefing sessions, I over-heard her pep-talking herself, ‘Ivy. Smile. Hello. No angry eyes!’ Then it dawned upon me: our words had gone in.
I had thought words were like drops of water, evaporating in seconds or minutes. No, they’re seeds planted. But they usually tend to take time to sprout – weeks, months, even years. Perhaps one day Ivy will be in full bloom, as warm as a fireplace for the weary greeter.
Words work both ways – they can instill self-defeating habits and attitudes too. When Eli was tiny, he bumped his head on a table. Trying to soothe him, I berated the soulless four-legged creature – ‘Bad, bad table!’ I took this approach multiple times. Little did I realize I was writing a script we could not easily delete. Now, when he makes a mistake, he defaults to blaming instead of taking it on the chin. That rookie error has Julie and I trying to pull a weed-tree from his life. It would’ve been so much easier to not sow the seed in the first place.
A seed becomes a plant, becomes more seeds, becomes a forest. A few weeks ago, a friend’s 5 year-old child warmly and confidently greeted me while I was chatting to someone. Before I could respond, the mother silenced her and apologized to me. Realizing she had just corrected something that probably needed no correction (I’d pay good money to get my kids to greet of their own initiative) she chided herself: ‘It’s this blasted inner voice. When I was small my mom taught us to never interrupt adults. I can’t get that thought out of my head’, she said.
Think about that: her mother’s voice became her inner voice, has become her voice, is becoming her girl’s inner voice. Words are meme-like, carried from one host to another, across the generations, with up to 30-year intervals!
Reflecting on that simple interaction, it became so clear to me that I need to be careful what I tell my kids. My words are becoming their inner voice.
Most sobering of all, that inner voice can either liberate or devastate.
Ask the buoyant adult who seems to bounce back to their feet after failure. They will often tell you of parents who regularly spoke words into the wet cement of their childhood, words like, ‘Don’t give up.’ ‘Learn from your failures.’ ‘We still love you.’ ‘It’s not a problem.’
Alternatively, ask the teenager who contemplates giving up on society or, worse yet, life. Because his dad’s words still ring in his ear after last year’s shocking school report: ‘You’re useless. In fact, you’re the biggest regret of my life. I give up on you.’
A proverb in Jewish biblical literature says it unequivocally…
‘The tongue has the power of life or death.’ (Proverbs 18:21)
Not just immediately, but in the long-haul of our hearer’s life. Our words can encode our child’s interpretation of events in a way that leads to either good or bad decision-making decades later. They can also shape the emotional climate of an entire life – with either sunshine or gloom.
With that much power, we best taste-test our words for arsenic before feeding them to our children.
In the next two posts, I will 1) explore 3 ways our words affect our children long after the words are spoken and 2) suggest 5 guidelines that help you think twice before speaking.
Also published on Medium.