Think back to something an adult said to you when you were a young child. Was it positive or negative? When we do recall something said to us long ago, these recollections will usually bring back the emotions associated with how those words affected us then.
Like breathing, language is always with us and can have a significant effect on how we as adults self-regulate and exchange energy with our children. While that might sound lofty or ethereal, it is fundamentally true. We usually don’t think about our breathing—it happens unconsciously, without our giving it any thought—but science and experience have shown that we can better manage our emotions, health, and relationships when we control our breathing (Walter et al., 2020). Similarly, the language parents choose to use with their children can guide their connections with them.
Being conscious and aware of the language we use is the first step in making sure our words will have the intended outcome. Because the language a parent uses can be so influential, our intentions, choices, and delivery should be considered. Language can shape a child’s learning, identity, and behaviors in the moment and over time (Stephens, 2007; Tamis-LeMonda & Rodriguez, 2009).
We all have a need to feel a sense of belonging and significance, and the use of specific language with a child that says we see them and we value them lays the foundation for that sense of belonging and significance. Using language that is encouraging, respectful, and genuine—combined with patience and trust—sends a message to the child that they matter. Adding specific feedback to our language repertoire will help children see their strengths, learn from mistakes, and grow, and lessens the chance that they will respond by seeking our approval or fear criticism.
This language that nourishes a sense of belonging and significance can lead to growth and healthy development. Positive parenting language is a model of firm faithfulness that encourages and promotes a child’s best efforts and growth, a part of the foundation of our relationship that we continue to build on—and yes, sometimes erode—throughout our lifetimes. What we as parents say matters.
Positive Parental Language
Language is more than just an expression of thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Psychologist Leo Vygotsky notes that language actually molds our sense of who we are, helps us to understand how we work and play, and influences the nature of our relationships, thus producing “fundamental new forms of behavior” (1978, p. 24). From here, it is easy to understand in an intellectual way that our words hold more power than we realize.
Sometimes, however, a parent’s words can come out in unexpected or unintended ways. Our language permeates nearly every interaction we have with children, shaping how children think about themselves, how they act, and how they relate to us, to others, and to the world. With this in mind, parents can reflect on the language they currently use with the intention of improving and making their verbal and nonverbal language more positive, more responsive, and more uplifting in an effort to promote the healthy growth and development of their child. This reflection will also help the parent feel more calm and responsive. Parents who are able and willing to reflect on their language and make refinements to how they communicate—who focus on using positive parental language—will begin to see how this approach influences a child’s intellectual development, social and emotional learning, and sense of self, as well as how it affects a child’s ability to collaborate and be a part of a community.
Children, especially young children, learn better by imitation, not by instruction. As they watch and listen, children are developing skills, strategies, and attitudes that will guide their behavior. By modeling and showing empathy, adults can strengthen and nurture their relationship with children. From that foundation, parents position their children and themselves to make rational decisions and plans of action buffered by respectful, caring, and supportive relationships.
Are You Ready to Improve Your Language?
Language can be constantly practiced and refined. When I work with teachers and schools, it often becomes apparent to each group that this is a topic to revisit often. For each of us, our language is something deeply ingrained, something we learn from infancy and that is shaped by the people with whom we interact and the situations in which we are immersed. Even though it is a part of our personal history and experience, language is also something that can be shaped and changed over time with effort. Language is truly one of the hardest things to change, but it can be one of the most profound things that can change.
When reflecting on your use of language with a child, keep in mind the following:
Be direct and genuine:
- Mean what you say and say what you mean: “We use safe hands with our family” instead of “Was it a good idea to push your sister off the swing?”
Use a friendly and calm tone:
- Children pick up our energy and will model the tone of voice and mannerisms we show them.
- Avoid sarcasm. Young children do not understand sarcasm and developmentally are very literal: “It’s time to clean up Legos so we can make our lunch” instead of “Look at this mess! It’s not going to clean up by itself.”
Convey faith in children’s abilities and intentions:
- Parents are their children’s biggest cheerleaders and they have to believe the children want to do the right thing. Children often need to be encouraged that they are on the right path.
- A parent’s tone shows their belief that everyone is working with the best of intentions.
- Avoid baby talk—it can convey a belief that children have limited capabilities.
Focus on action:
- Avoid personal or qualitative judgment, which encourages children to please adults rather than to learn habits that build autonomy, empathy, and life skills.
Keep it brief:
- Keep directions short and sweet—the less a parent says, the more the child hears. Avoid long explanations and lectures.
Know when to be silent:
- Allow wait time for children to respond, and try to avoid repeating directions or information.
Respectful interactions are important:
- If parents are to facilitate the social and cognitive growth of our children—and to help them develop positive speaking and listening skills—parents must ensure that children feel valued, safe, and recognized in our presence.
Respectful interactions are the foundations of learning and life, and are key:
- They provide a safe environment for risk-taking and connection.
- They are the basis for creating proactive discipline and conditions for success. The absence of respectful interactions can interrupt learning and contribute to misbehavior and reactive discipline.
- They build trust with children and among adults.
Reflection: A Continuing Process
My children are now young adults with healthy relationships and purposeful career paths. They call me out when I do not communicate well, and together we have overcome more than a few bumps in the road along the way. Did I communicate consistently in the most positive way with them during their childhood? Heck no! But what I did do is continue to show up, to learn and grow, and to have their backs. Positive parent language is one of the most powerful tools we have as parents. Understanding the influence of what we say can be the first step toward raising a caring, well-adjusted, and respectful child.