The children's playground rhyme, 'Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me' is simply not true. Most of us can remember only too well hurtful words that have been spoken to us. When our children are testing us to the limit it can be so easy to slip into saying things that not only convey our frustration or anger at what they have done, but also label their character.
I came across the following letter, which underlines the importance of the way we speak to our children.
"My father left our family home when I was young and we lost touch with him. I will never know if he ever tried to get in touch, but if he did, my mother kept it from us. When I was just ten, my mother died suddenly and unexpectedly. I was sent to live with my great-aunt. I can understand it, as the last thing she needed was a ten-year-old to look after, but she never made me feel welcome. She told me repeatedly that I was a nuisance and in the way. Looking back, the impact of her words has shaped who I am. As an adult I have low self-esteem and little confidence. I am working to change that, but I believe my life could have been so different if, in those early years, those who cared for me had pointed out what was right with me rather than what was wrong."
My daughter recalls a time at junior school when she was given the chance to try a number of new activities - Brownies, swimming, ballet, recorder and drama club, to name just a few. She embraced these opportunities wholeheartedly - only to want to give each up after the first term. As a parent, I thought I detected a pattern of behaviour in her that would make life difficult for her later. Spotting a 'learning opportunity' I said to her, 'don't be a quitter, persevere. Don't give up!' But what I had thought was a call to arms and an exhortation to aim high, she saw as a rebuke. It was years later that she told me that the words that she heard me say were, 'You are a quitter.' The power of those words shaped how she saw herself, and it took her several years to believe otherwise.
I know that in the heat of the moment I have sometimes used words carelessly to my children. Rather than commenting on them - 'You are so selfish/unkind/naughty ... (fill in the blank)' - we would do well to describe their behaviour. So instead of, 'You were so unkind to leave Lottie out of your game' we might say, 'When you wouldn't let Lottie join in your game, that was an unkind thing to do.' In describing their behaviour it leaves open the possibility of change.
We all wear labels from our past; some are easier to read than others. As parents we have an important role in shaping our children's character and bringing correction when it is needed. But as we do that, let's ensure that above all, what they hear loudly and clearly are positive words that will form their identity and build their character for years to come.