Everyday words you should avoid when talking to children
Do you give your child compliments, put a positive spin on everything you say, even when they did something wrong? Do you often tell them they are doing well, that they look good in that blue shirt? Or are you honest and treat them like an adult, not letting them win games and saying their art could do with some improvement?
You are probably somewhere in between these two tactics, which I would class as ‘normal’ communication. Sometimes you’re having a bad day so it’s a little less positive, no matter how much you try, and sometimes things are going well and your language reflects that. Communication is often an automatic and reflexive part of our lives.
At my job, language and communication is used deliberately and carefully. We strive towards what is called non-violent communication, which means we use terms like ‘beautiful’ and ‘bad’ with great care and mostly avoid using them at all.
Don't set expectations
When a child comes in wearing a new coat and proudly tells us about it, we say “I can see you are happy with your new coat, you’re smiling! It is blue and has dinosaurs on it”. Or if a child figures out how to jump from something and wants to show off, I tell them: “yes, I see you” with a happy and enthusiastic tone of voice.
We do this to avoid giving children the impression they have to ‘be’ a certain way to be accepted, but rather take away our expectations of the child. When adults use words that come so automatically to us in everyday language, like pretty, tough, cool, happy, funny, we are unaware they all eventually lead to the notion of being ‘good enough’.
In other words, grown-ups are telling children “you are a certain way and this is what we expect of you”. Children then (subconsciously) start to think this is how they ‘should’ be, instead of being themselves. Unconscious language often reinforces the desirability of some emotions over others, which means a lot of children become ashamed of or unable to process such essential, but often unwanted, emotions such as anger, sadness or fright.
Changing your habits
So how do we help children be themselves through language? It takes a lot of effort to consciously change your language, and I only have to do it at work; I am sure my husband will attest that I am much less careful with my language at home! But like with all changes, changing your language requires you to be conscious of what you do and do not want: the more you practice and listen to yourself, the more non-violent communication will become automatic.
A while ago I was telling my husband a story about work which included a child throwing a toy car. I mentioned I told the child ‘please throw a ball’ and finished the story. My husband looked confused and asked: ‘what did the ball have to do with anything?' I then had to explain that as part of non-violent communication, we tell the children what we do want instead of telling them off for unwanted actions. Of course, I hadn’t realised while telling the story that the non-violent communication which took me so much effort to learn in the beginning is now a natural way of communicating for me.
Merel Miedema is an early childhood educator in Amsterdam, where she works at one of the city’s oldest independent and green crèches.