Choosing Our Words Carefully…

I speak a lot with parents about discipline, about behaviour, and about how to approach handling their children’s behaviour. What we say and what we do has an enormous effect on our kids, not only in the here and now, but in the broader, long term sense. I sometimes see things that are good examples of what not to do.

A couple were eating out with their 12 month old. The little chap was handed a china cup, which he promptly threw on the tiled floor. I imagine you’re thinking, well, who gives a twelve month old a china cup? Yes… but it was Dad’s reaction that prompted me to blog about it. “Naughty boy!” he shouted, in a stern voice. Now, in the first place, we don’t give smashable objects to babies. Secondly, babies that age throw everything on the floor, it’s a perfectly normal phase of development: I chuck it, you pick it up, I therefore have your attention. All babies do it, and it’s not naughty. His wife quietly objected, to which he loudly replied “he’s got to learn!”. I lost count of the number of times I heard “naughty boy” after that.

That father needs to learn what is developmentally appropriate behaviour for his child. There are plenty of good books about it: Penelope Leach’s Baby and Child being one of the best. Expecting a 12 month old to sit still for over an hour, to eat food he has never tasted before, and to not chuck things off his high chair? All a bit much, don’t you think?

On the same trip, I was so sad to witness a little boy of about six being berated by his carer for being naughty, bad, trouble, etc. I don’t even care what he had done to deserve the vitriolic lecture he was getting: all he was hearing is “you are a bad person”.

The important issue here is to separate the behaviour from the child. If you constantly tell a child that he is a naughty boy, he is going to believe it. He will believe that he does not deserve your love, that he is a bad person. Kids are grimly literal: it is well worth learning to phrase things more carefully right from the start. Some of the alternatives that I teach parents to use include:

-Look for a positive way to phrase things (eg: “when you have finished your sandwich, you can play with your toys” rather than “you can’t play with your toys if you don’t eat your sandwich”)

-Find alternatives to “no”, such as “stop” (eg: “stop that”, vs “no don’t do that”)

-Separate the child from the behaviour (eg: “that was a naughty thing to do”‘ vs “naughty boy”)

It’s so easy to fall into the habit of saying things like “naughty girl” – try to cultivate the habit of phrasing things in a different way.