It’s so easy to blurt out what we’re thinking without giving much consideration to the young ears that are processing many of expressed thoughts and internalizing developing values.
Viewing a heavyset woman: “She is so sloppy! Ugh!”
Younger child thinking: overweight people are ‘bad’.
Adolescent thinking: I’ve gained some weight; people are criticizing me behind my back.
While driving: “Get in your own lane, you #@* road hog!”
Younger child thinking: it’s OK to swear when you’re angry
Adolescent thinking: ranting and raving while you drive is normal behavior
Watching a TV commentator: “What an idiot! He doesn’t know anything!”
Younger child thinking: you’re stupid if you express your views
Adolescent thinking: I may be wrong if I say something, then I’ll be criticized, so I better not say anything
If we recognize that our language needs to be modified when children are listening to reflect the fact that they are taking their cues from us and we have a duty to act responsibly, we might reconsider those words before they come popping out. We can think so much faster than we can move our mouths to talk. Using this extra time to consider the impact of our words and revising them accordingly would be a great service to listening children.
The above comments could easily be modified to reflect that a) heavyset people are not to blame for their weight, which is more of a health issue than a character flaw, b) driving can be emotional for people because of territorial feelings around space invasion, c) everyone is entitled to their opinion, of which we do not have to agree, but we should be courteous when we disagree.
Mother: “Just look at Mary in this picture -she’s really gained a lot of weight and looks terrible!”
Child: “That doesn’t sound very nice.”
Mother: “Oh she’s not here; she can’t hear me, so there is no harm done.”
What does this teach? Several things actually: 1) it’s okay to talk about people behind their back, 2) honesty doesn’t count for much, 3) negative comments have a place (not true; if there’s nothing to be gained by saying something, then don’t say it), 4) model my bad behavior, to grow into an adult with the same negative values (there is harm done!)
COMMUNICATION TAKEAWAY: We have much more power to influence the children around us than we realize, or stop to consider. The adult role models in a child’s life help him to figure out who he’s going to be, what values she’s going to hold, and her place in this world (self-esteem issues). You may think that children are wrapped up in their own little worlds and don’t hear much of what you say, but they absorb much more than you realize. And they are using the knowledge in developmental ways. Unfortunately we tend forget that this formative process is continually taking place.