With toddlers in the house, Daniel Tiger is a favorite around here. I often find myself singing the jingles. Lately the one that has been playing on repeat in my mind is, “Use your words, use your words…to say how you feel”.
I have attended two funerals in the last few months where the person giving the eulogy did an absolutely incredible job. My uncle at my Maw Maw’s funeral and one of my best friends, Chrissy at her Dad’s funeral could not have chosen better words to honor their parents’ life stories. I was seriously blown away each time by the way a son honored his Mother and a daughter honored her Father.
And the last couple of days I’ve been thinking, in the end, once this life on earth is through, is not that all that remains: your life reduced to an obituary, other’s words about you? Through their words your memory and legacy live on, through the words of those who knew you, your life can still impact others. For authors, their words live on to impact others even when they have long left this world. And for beloved family members, they can continue to impact generations after them by words spoken, stories told about them, character attributes praised and emulated, passed down from generation to generation.
For the Christ- follower, His words are life. And we know that though we are absent from this world, we will be present with Christ. God created this world by His word. He SPOKE it into existence and He is still speaking, if we choose to listen. The Word of God is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword (Hebrews 4). Words can build up or tear down (Ephesians 4). When we refresh others with our words, we ourselves are refreshed (Proverbs 11:25).
“Words kill, words give life. They are either poison or fruit- you choose.”
Proverbs 18:21, The Message
Even if you do not know much about the Scriptures, I am sure you can attest words are powerful. Can you remember a time when someone’s words crushed you? I know I can remember several. On the flip side, can you remember a time when someone’s words about you breathed life into you? Gave you courage? Inspired you to conquer a fear or try something new or truly believe good and true something about yourself?
I love the book (and movie), The Help. I read it several years ago, but one of the lines that has stayed with me is what the caretaker speaks over the little girl she cares for every single day: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” Oh, how our words truly give life! They can shape a life, can shape a family, can shape a generation, can shape a world. What we say to others (and to ourselves) affect how they see themselves (and how we see ourselves). Are you kind to yourself in the way that you “speak” to yourself all day? What is your thought like life? For, as a man thinks in his heart, so is he. (Proverbs 23:7)
As parents, we are the first teachers of our children. And as teachers, we have the opportunity to make a profound impact. Just last week when I went to pick my middle son up from the childcare at Bible study, his teacher spoke words of praise to me about how attentive he was at his age (newly 2), and how he truly listened and understood. She encouraged me to keep my hand on him because he may be the next Billy Graham (lol!). What mother doesn’t love to hear words of praise about her child? And what child doesn’t feed off praise as well?! If people continue to speak things like this over David, I have no doubt those words will impact what David thinks of himself.
I watched a movie in an education class at A&M that featured the famous Brown Eyes experiment. Wow. If you have not seen it, you should click the link above (sorry some of the language is rough; it is from decades ago). In essence, a 3rd grade teacher creates and experiment in her classroom, one day saying “blue eyed people are better” and “brown eyed people are not”. She gives the blue eyed people more recess, special privileges. She tells them they cannot play with the brown-eyed people. She speaks words of life into the blue-eyed children and words of discouragement into the brown-eyed people. The next day, she reverses the roles. The kids come to their own conclusions about who is smart and who is not, who is able who is not, saying things like, “The way they treated you, it seemed like you didn’t even want to do anything.” The students even perform more quickly on their word work the day they are praised and told they are better! When there teacher tells them they are smart, they perform better!
Mama, how are you speaking to your kiddos today? Are you speaking words of encouragement and praise? Or, are you constantly correcting, saying, “No!”, “Stop fighting!”, “Come here!”, “Share please!”, “Don’t hit your brother!”, “Stop acting crazy”. (I am by no means saying we do not need to correct or say No to our children. Of course we do!) But I’ve heard it said for every one negative interaction, there needs to be 5 positive ones. When I remember to intentionally look for ways to praise my 2 and 3 year old I can see it transform them into more cooperative and willing children. If only I could stamp a tattoo on their foreheads that says, “Encourage me” because indeed, that is what all children are craving.
As a recovering perfectionist, one who tends to be detail-oriented and often focuses on the negative, it can be more natural for me to be critical than to be encouraging. To be honest, when thinking of how to praise specifically, it’s hard for me to know what to say, more than just “Great Job!” or, “You are so smart!” I also struggle with false praise. I don’t want to tell my child, “Great hit” when he didn’t even hit the ball. He will learn over time my words don’t carry weight. So where is the line then? How do we praise effectively? I do not want to say things that are not true, or build kids up so much that they are “snowflakes” and cannot take any criticism, so there is definitely a balance.
I plan on writing a post for some tips on taming toddler tantrums and speaking to toddlers soon, but for now, I want to include some ideas for how to offer specific praise:
- Instead of offering an evaluation, simply describe what you see or ask your child to tell you about what they have done. Example: “Caleb, I see you have used so many colors on your picture. I see you stayed in the lines here! There is red and blue and purple.” or, “Tell me about your picture.”
- Describe their effects on others. Example: “Wow, look, Baby Ethan is smiling at you when you talk to him. You are a good big brother.” Or, “Look at David’s face when you shared your cars. How do you think that made him feel?”
- Praise their effort over the the job done. Example: I can see you tried your best picking up your toys.
- Praise the behavior you want reinforced. Example: For several months I had tried to teach our oldest how to hold a crayon correctly and he would get so angry when I would correct him. He would just scream, “No!” and refuse to change his behavior or stop coloring all together. I know this is not a huge deal at his age, so I just let it be. But, one day I noticed his younger brother holding his crayon the right way and I said, “David! Look how you are holding your crayon!” and guess who automatically changed his grip on his? Caleb, looking up at me said, “Look, Mommy! Look how I am holding my crayon.” I often do this when one of them obeys when I call them the first time, “Oh, David! Thank you so much for obeying Mommy and coming the first time.” It almost always makes the other one want to obey as well.
- Tell them what they can do. So often I spend the day telling the boys what they are not allowed to do. I know I would not like being told no all day long every day, so I try to remember to tell them what they CAN do. Example: You cannot throw your cars, but you can throw balls. or After one of them is yelling, I simply say, “if you want to yell, you can yell outside. We don’t yell inside.” Along with this tip, I’ve heard it said that whenever possible it is a good idea to dialogue with your child rather than monologue. So for example, instead of saying, “Don’t throw cars!” You can ask, “What did you just throw?” (wait for answer) and say, “Are we supposed to throw cars?”. (wait for answer) “What can we throw?” (wait for answer). In this way we are teaching our kids to think themselves, and to reach their own conclusions instead of simply dictating to them the rules. We can also praise them by simply noticing what they are able to do on their own and stating it out loud.
- Brag about them to others (like their Dad, their grandparents, etc) when they can hear. I try to tell Bryan something positive that the kids did that day at dinner so they can hear me praise them. Example: Caleb remembered something he hadn’t seen in over a year and I told Bryan, “Did you know Caleb remembered that from a year ago! What a great memory he has.”
- Tell them they can do hard things and that you believe they can do it. And resist the urge to rescue them right away when they struggle (This is so hard for me!). But if a child is able to do something herself, let her. It will build such confidence and she will think she can do things. She is able and you want her to get that message her whole life.
- Describe progress. Example: “I see that you have picked up 3 cars.” Often times if we praise the progress, our kids will think they can finish the task.
Some of the above tips are modified from the book How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listenby Joanna Faber and Julie King. If you have any other ideas for how you praise your kiddos, please feel free to comment below! I would love to hear them.
Don’t rob others of joy to be had. Encourage someone today with specific praise! Speech is a free gift we can give. Remember, Mama, what you say to your kids day in and day out will GREATLY shape how they think about themselves. Empower your children today. Let’s be Mamas who strive to create fruit in their lives.
I am not writing this post out of a place of mastery, but rather, as a reminder to myself and out of conviction to change. I have a lot of work to do in this area. Some days with 3, 3 and under, it is so much easier to just turn on the tv (so it keeps fighting to a minimum). Some days I feel like I am barely hanging on to my patience. Some times I lose my cool and have to apologize. Some days, getting everyone dressed is a win and when we try to do something “fun” I question if it is worth it. Most days, I feel like I am just trying to survive and fight that heaping Mom guilt of needing to do all the things. But, I want to be better. I want to remember the impact of my words and think before I talk. I want to be one who looks for opportunities to praise, not only my children, but my husband, my friends, and other Moms as well. Mamas we are not in competition.
Let’s be each others cheerleaders! There is so much joy to be had in encouraging one another to become all who God has created us to be and to use our talents for the glory of God and the good of others. Mama, thank you for reading this today. I have no doubt you are striving to be the best mother you can be, and your children will be so thankful.
So, as they say on Daniel Tiger, “Use your words, use your words to say how you feel” to your loved ones now, while you can. As long as you have breath, use it wisely. We truly never know how many days we have left. What words will others say about you? What legacy do you want to leave? I can only pray that one day my kids will stand and say words of me like those I have heard recently said about my Maw Maw and my friend’s Dad. May I be found faithful and may they see Jesus in me.
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