Today we are welcoming guest author, Monica Bhattacharya, a third grade parent in Manhattan, who is sharing a valuable word on the words we choose.
What Language Choices Do You Make?
A. “Hey, line up now.” Quit fooling around or else you’ll miss recess!”
B. “Stop running. I’ve told you three times already. No tablet time if you do it again.”
C. “Good job. You’re really smart.”
We’ve all heard that (most of it) before. You’ve probably also heard it on your child’s playground during recess. In fact, you might have used the above or variations of them at home with your kids. But how are these words perceived once spoken?
The word choices we make on a daily basis at home, at school, as a parent and as an educator have the power to create specific situations for our listeners. It could be punitive (A), demoralizing (B), or vacuous (C).
While studying for my Masters in Education seven years ago, I came across this wonderful book called ‘Choice Words’ by Peter H. Johnston, as part of our literacy unit. The central idea of the book is that language is not just a tool a teacher or parent should use for content, but for purposeful building of a safe and supportive environment. Quoting Peter H. Johnston directly, “language has ‘content’ but it also bears information about the speaker and how he or she views the listener and their assumed relationship.” Elegantly put.
While this book takes a more academic stance, there’s no reason why we can’t use the same basic principles in our parenting. As parents, especially in NYC, daily stressors bring out the worst in us, and we may be saying things to our children in ways that are in turn, counterproductive, punitive, demoralizing, and vacuous. So let’s consider these alternative statements:
A. “Hey guys, if we don’t line up quickly, we lose recess time. Do we want that? That’s what I thought. So what do we need to do?
B. “Why do you think we’re telling you not to run here?” My goal is to keep you safe.”
C. “It was hard at first, but you kept at it, and you didn’t give up. That was cool.” (this is also referred to as ‘process praise’ – look up Carol Dweck for her work on ‘Growth Mindset’).
This is not an overnight transition. It took some practice for me as an educator to cross over to this paradigm, but it has yielded happy dividends in my professional life. And since I had my daughter, who’s now in 3rd grade, I’ve had great fun practicing language carefully with her – and am enjoying the results: a happy, well-adjusted, and secure child.
But nobody’s perfect. We can’t always talk that way. It would be naive to assume that I always communicate within such a structured and contrived framework.
But we can at least try taking baby steps. Everywhere around me in our beautiful city, I see kids yelling and screaming and parents issuing ultimatums. It needn’t be like that. Let’s take a deep breath and smell the coffee. Put those devices away for a moment. Look into your child’s eyes. They’re looking to us for guidance when they struggle to express themselves verbally. If we can get into a habit of speaking constructively to even the youngest child from the beginning, great things can happen. Children are unbelievably perceptive and they get more than we give them credit for. Let’s give them the gift of language as a meaning-making tool, to help them grow into critically literate and thoughtful human beings. And preserve our sanity while we’re at it.