Word Power for Kids

Encourage them, teach them, guide them with the gift of language, conversation and attention

We are told again and again that words matter. That’s because it’s true — especially the words we use with our kids.

A study by the University of Arizona in 2014 found that, on average, people speak about 16,000 words per day. This is an estimate independent of gender, social class, race, or employment type. While 16,000 words is a lot of words — studies indicate our kids need even more than that.

We’ve all heard our children mirror what we say, and if we don’t notice it, those around us do.

When Dr. Betty Hart and Dr. Todd Risely of the University of Kansas researched children and families over a decade ago, their assessment was that children need to hear roughly 30,000 words a day from their parents. That is like reading “The Cat in the Hat” 18 times, as noted.

The landmark University of Kansas study is referred to today by parenting experts in all stages of development. “The sheer quantity of words a baby hears is linked to their resulting vocabulary and to overall baby speech development,” noted of the importance of language at the earliest stages.

While these studies focused on both academic readiness for children entering kindergarten and the effects of language through third grade as reflected in competency exams, our words do more than just ready our children for academics — they shape them as people. Children learn vocabulary from their parents: Hart and Risely found that roughly 86 to 98 percent of words used by children were also used by their parents.

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We’ve all heard our children mirror what we say, and if we don’t notice it, those around us certainly do. When my children say or do things that sound familiar, my own parents look at me and say, “Hmm … who does she sound like?” While this is typically done in a joking manner, the idea is the same. Your kids are going to hear what you say — positive or negative — and parrot it back in one way or another.

Related: Are You Really Listening to Your Kid?

Our language has power. We often dismiss this as we try to get our point across — though our kids are the ones we should be most careful with. “Stop that,” “don’t touch that,” “stop bothering your brother” — these are all phrases we have likely uttered to our children. And they’re all negative.

“Changing our language doesn’t mean we change our expectations — it means we change our full-circle message to our kids.”

So should we stop redirecting our children just for fear of negativity? Certainly not. But perhaps we can just rethink the way we are speaking to them by taking the negative phrases and allowing our redirection to reflect positive interactions.

I can tell from the looks on my children’s faces when they’ve had enough of “Directive Mom” and need more “Engaging Mom.” Directive Mom is present when cooking dinner — “Don’t do cartwheels in the kitchen” (yes, I’m serious, I have to reiterate that). “Don’t go near the stove.” “Stop leaving your cars on the floor.” But what if Directive Mom took a break and Engaging Mom stepped up? What would my language look like then?

It’s a quick fix, really — something we busy parents love. Changing our language doesn’t mean we are changing our expectations — it means we are changing our full-circle message to our children, the verbal and nonverbal message they receive every time we speak one of those 30,000 words to them each day.

Related: Your Kid’s Temper Tantrum Doesn’t Mean You’re a Bad Parent

Engaging Mom could say instead, “Where is a good place for cartwheels?” as opposed to the exasperated phrase, “Don’t do cartwheels in the kitchen.” This gives the child ownership, a chance to answer, a chance to be heard. It also gives Mom the opportunity to take a deep breath, hear her child, and not lose patience.

Saying, “How do you think your brother feels when you are unkind to him?” allows your child the opportunity to think through the consequences of his actions. When Mom immediately jumps to, “I’ve told you a thousand times to be nice to him,” she is not modeling kindness herself.

Our language has so much meaning — verbal, nonverbal, tone, even mannerisms. All of this plays into how our children perceive us and thus perceive themselves. “The voice we use with our children is our own inner voice, often learned from our parents,” said Tracy Mott, a retired Charlotte, North Carolina, fifth-grade teacher. “Most people don’t want to pass this down. But what we use with our children becomes their inner voice. Do we want them to carry a positive or negative voice with them?”

“We are encouraged biblically ‘not to embitter our children.'”

What we speak to and believe of our kids will become reality — the power of the self-fulfilled prophecy.

If we convince our kids — even unintentionally — that they are always doing the wrong thing, they will continue to always do the wrong thing and will begin to see this as their reality. We must use our language to show our children that we believe in them — that they will make mistakes and break rules, and we will still love them, believe in them, and guide them.

We will love them unconditionally as they develop into the people they were meant to be.

We are encouraged biblically “not to embitter our children.” Ephesians 4:6 says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger,” though the word used here — pateres — should be translated to “parents,” as it is in Hebrews 11:23. The message here is not to provoke your children but to instead do just the opposite. Encourage them. Teach them. Guide them.

And the easiest, yet most profoundly powerful place to start? Your words.

Liz Logan lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her growing family. She is pursuing a master’s degree in creative nonfiction.

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