Words matter. We’ve all been hurt by words, and carried them around with us. We’ve all said hurtful words, seen the impact and fallout, and carried the regret around with us later.
Words can heal the deepest wounds, and words can damage beyond repair.
As a parent, I am constantly reminded of the power of my own words. I’ve verbally lashed out in frustration or anger and seen the impact on my boys’ faces. I’ve also seen my words stop a meltdown in its tracks when chosen carefully and delivered gently. Consistency is hard, so very hard. How often am I guilty of flying off the handle when I reach the end of my short fuse? Too much, that is for sure. I know that I am a work in progress, but some days I wonder if I’m making any progress at all.
We and our kids are living in a time of rampant disregard for words and their impact. The internet, for all its glories, has also brought to the surface the ugly underbelly of the monster. Click on the comments section of any news article or post, no matter how innocuous, and you will see someone firing off hateful, obscene personal attacks. When did this become ok?
In our house, we teach that it’s ok to have and feel feelings. It’s ok to be mad. It’s ok to be frustrated and angry. And it’s ok to say how you feel: “I am so MAD at you right now!” or “I am so frustrated, I could SCREAM!!” But it is not ok to make character attacks in our house, such as, “You’re so stupid.” And it is definitely NOT OK to say the words “I hate you!” Once the words leave our mouths, no amount of apologizing and regret will put them back in. We may be forgiven for our words, but they may never be forgotten. The words are out there, and they’ve been heard.
Why this stance against “hate”?
Hate is a strong phrase. It means so much more than “angry” or “mad” or “frustrated.” The thesaurus gives these words as synonyms of hate: animosity, enmity, hostility, loathing, venom, repulsion, scorn, abhorrence, contempt. These are heavy words, with heavy meaning. Our home needs to be a safe place where we can all escape what is flying around out there. While this doesn’t mean that we won’t disagree, argue or fight, it does mean that we will do it in a way that is respectful.
Our kids are watching and listening, believe me. It’s never more evident than when one of my kids opens their mouth, and I hear MY words pouring out.
So what can we do to teach kids that words matter?
1. Fight fair.
My husband and I argue, because this is real life. We are not clones, we disagree with each other. We make wrong assumptions about each other, and sometimes let each other down. When we fight, we both work hard to not cross the line, where fighting about something becomes insulting each other for nothing. This is true in front of the kids, AND behind closed doors when the kids aren’t around. There is no place for hurling insults (or objects) at each other in our house or in our marriage. Sometimes we just have to go to our corners. Sometimes we have to stay in our corners for a couple of days until we cool off. But we’re in this for the long haul. Even when I’m seeing red, I still choose him and he chooses me. Fighting fair shows our kids that disagreement is a part of life, but it isn’t free license to burn it all down just because we’re mad.
2. Take time-outs.
This is something that applies to littles and grown-ups. When they’re little, time-outs aren’t a choice. However, the intention is that as they grow, they will learn to put themselves in a time-out when they just need to cool off. I need to be constantly reminded of this myself. The times that I just take a moment—or several moments!—to walk away for a minute, breathe and gather myself, I am able to salvage the situation and turn it around.
3. Set boundaries.
Every family is going to have different versions of what is ok and not ok to say, but there needs to be boundaries somewhere. Maybe it’s tone, maybe it’s name-calling, swearing, or whatever. Putting boundaries on our words and holding ourselves to them means exerting some much-needed discipline over our tongues.
4. Be careful online.
Model good behavior. A good rule of thumb is: If you wouldn’t say it out loud to the person’s face in a neutral setting, it should not be written/posted/tweeted/commented/texted/emailed. It is clear that our generation (and those older than us) went nuts with the newfound power of “anonymity” with the advent of the internet. Like that kid who goes wild their freshman year of college because there’s no curfew or responsible adult around, we sometimes can’t handle the responsibility. But I’m hopeful that we can turn the tide. We can clean up our own act, model good behavior for our kids, and teach them boundaries—including eliminating personal attacks.
5. Talk about it.
We tell our preschoolers to “use their words” instead of hitting, but it doesn’t stop there. We need to use “in boundary” words to express feelings that are “out of bounds.” When we or our kids say something out of bounds, we need to apologize and forgive, talk about why it was wrong, or how we should have said it better. Kids need to talk about what they are hearing, and how they feel about it. Then ask what THEY think would be a better way to handle it.
I recently heard a saying: “We’re not raising kids, we’re raising grown-ups.” May we intentionally raise our kids to be grown-ups who know the power of their words and use them well.