The other day I was at Target (it’s an addiction, people) and I heard someone say quite loudly, “GET YOUR ASS OVER HERE NOW!” Curious, I looked in the general direction of the obnoxious voice and saw an angry-looking woman screaming at… a two-year-old. Yes, a two-year-old. As in a sweet, innocent, curious and slightly naughty because they all are, two-year-old. The next day, my husband and I were with our daughter at a the park. As we were playing in the sand, two more kids came to join us: a little boy around two and his sister, who was about five. As we are playing, the older girl began to scold her brother and my daughter. “I told you to SHARE!” she said, ripping a toy from her brother’s hands. I know that she is just a little girl, but after 15 minutes of this, I was slightly appalled and totally annoyed, so we moved away to play in a different area. My husband, wise as ever, remarked, “I feel sorry for that girl. That must be the way her parents talk to her. It’s probably the only way she knows how to talk.” Of course, he was right. Kids don’t come out of the womb talking. (Thank goodness, I wouldn’t want to hear all of the things I was doing wrong in those first few weeks!) Language is a learned skill. When you speak to your children, you are not only teaching them words, but habits as well as values. It is not just what you say, but how you say it, and what it means.
Maybe it is because I am a writer, but I have always been in awe of the power of words. The most influential figures in history such as Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Obama, and even Hitler, although clearly less positively, have changed the world through their words. For better or worse, it was their words and the manner in which they spoke them that inspired the masses – not their physical strength, money or weapons. Words can truly do what no gun or bomb can, although they can be just as destructive.
If you think about it, most of the pivotal moments, both good and bad, in one’s life stem from words. “I love you.” “Congratulations!” “You’re fired.” “Mama. (my personal fave!)” “Your offer was accepted.” “It’s not you, it’s me.” “I do.” “It’s a girl.” “Cancer.” “You passed.” “Honey, would you like another glass of wine? (These particular words led to the conception of our daughter.)” Yes, words are important. They shape the course of one’s life. But they also shape the course of one’s self. No matter how strong you are, it’s difficult not to let another person’s words shape your perception of yourself. And unfortunately it is often so much easier to believe the bad words rather than the good. Why is that? No matter how high your self-esteem has been built from a lifetime of encouragement and compliments, sometimes it takes only a single negative comment to knock it all down. No matter how many people tell you that you are smart, kind, funny, beautiful, thin, or a great mother, all it takes is one person’s criticism to plant the seeds of self-doubt. And often our harshest and most outspoken critic is ourself. It’s hard for any amount of compliments to overcome our own negative thoughts. Strange as it seems, a thousand “I love you”s can hardly stand up to a single “I hate myself.”
If we understand the power of words, then we must understand the responsibility that each of us holds… not only to other people, but also to ourselves and most importantly, to our children. I am just now truly beginning to comprehend the weight of this responsibility. My daughter started talking a few months ago, and now it seems as though she is picking up a new word every day, as well as repeating everything we say. It’s cute when she repeats “I love you.” – or at least something that sounds like it – but terrifying when she says, “Yeah” in exactly the same annoying-teenage-girl manner in which I sometimes catch myself saying it. And I already told you about my Friday night “Oh Sh!t”s slip up with my friend’s two-year-old. If that poor kid becomes anything less than a successful doctor, lawyer or scientist, I am definitely going to blame his downward spiral on myself.
All joking aside though, a slip-up is bound to happen here and there. We are only human, and some situations require the use of the colorful language that slides so easily off the tongue. Shit happens, so to speak, so we can’t beat ourselves up about it. What is more important is the way we speak every day, not only when our kids are listening, but also when they are not. I have learned that, like both the government and Perez Hilton, kids have eyes and ears everywhere. They are always listening and learning from you, so be careful what you teach them. Think about it… how can you teach your children to respect everyone, if they constantly hear you bashing that bitchy co-coworker or annoying neighbor to your girlfriends? How can they learn equality when they hear you talking down to others? How can your daughter feel beautiful if she hears you constantly bemoaning your own looks? How can your kids learn to fight fair if they hear you and your husband fighting dirty? The basic rule: If you can’t think of something nice to say, don’t say it at all. I know this phrase is just as annoying now as it was when your third grade teacher said it (along with “Keep your hands to yourself” and “Stop eating paste, Courtney.” ) but it’s true. It’s a tough one for me though. I am naturally blunt, sarcastic, judgemental, easily annoyed and I love a good bit of gossip. None of these things usually result in anything nice to say, so that often leaves me unusually mute. But I am a work in progress and I am working on these things for my daughter’s sake. I hope you will too.
With every word we speak we are teaching our children, not only how to talk, but how to live. So make sure you are doing your best to teach them the right way to do both. Your kids will thank you someday… hopefully with perfect spelling and grammar.