A Legacy of Words: Talking to [and About] Your Children

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Words are our legacy. No matter who you are, people will remember you by the things you have said. I am reading a novel right now—Looking for Alaska by John Green. The main character has memorized the last words of famous people. If words had no import, no one would take the time to catalog what people’s last words were. If words were fleeting things, no one would be able to recall exactly the insult you gave them on the exact date as an adolescent.

Words stick to us. They stay with us. They can live inside us happily or unhappily. Sometimes they make monsters of us. On occasion, they make us better people. But overall, words are a powerful, powerful legacy. And we need to handle them gingerly and use them with great care.

I’ve written about the impact words can have before. And, I’ve written about having a daughter before. But now that my own daughter is actually using words, I am thinking more and more and more about the words I use around her.

This all started when I came across the image below. Since I had always secretly hated calling little girls (or grown women) princesses, I was in full agreement with this one. Little girls need to be told they are strong, capable, bright and well, awesome. But don’t we all?

princess clip art

(Answer: yes. But take a minute to think. What do you remember more vividly—the last time you were complimented on your appearance or the last time you were complimented on your abilities? If your answer is the latter, then you are in great shape. And chances are, your parents used words that complimented your actions more than your appearance.)

Me, not so much.

My mother sang a song to me when I was a baby. “Bridgette Holmes, my Bridgette Holmes, pretty pretty Bridgette Holmes.” And still, I think about that song with ballooning nostalgia. The way my mother sang, the sweetness of the made-up song just for me—and the message. I was pretty.

Having suffered through a chubby phase and your basic, run of the mill teasing when I was in sixth grade, I could not help but be focused on the messages I received about my appearance. I have never, until now, linked the feelings I had about myself to the words that were used around me. I noticed the ways that I was different from my peers. But, the slippery slope came when you realized adults noticed it too.

But before I make the blanket statement that my sweet little mother messed me up by calling me pretty, let me tell you a story about her childhood. A childhood that was not full of roses, devoid of praise and bereft of any really attachment as a family. My mother was left at age four by her mother. I can’t imagine what it would be like knowing your mother left you and then learning to get along without her. My mother was shy, quiet and was very aware of the labels that were passed out in her family. My aunt was the funny one, my uncle was the smart one and she was the hard worker. She vividly remembers overhearing her father say what a hard worker she was and she has carried this with her through her entire life. At 71, my mother works 40 hours a week and maintains a 3 bedroom house, yard and pool all on her own. Anyone that knows her would say that she is one of the hardest working people they know.

If I asked my mother what her parents thought of her, this is what she would say. And while it is indeed positive and motivated her to do good things, think about what other words my grandparents could have used that could have impacted her even more. The legacy of those words could have led her somewhere completely different. Words are just that powerful.

So, when I started snapping pictures of Celia on Instagram and wanted to give her her own original hashtag (the true demonstration of Mommy vanity), I chose #prettycelia— for obvious reasons. I mean, my little Celia, is, well, so adorable!

And then this article threw me for a loop. Do I say pretty too often when talking about her hair, her clothes, her eyes, her painted nails? Have I already begun to define her thoughts of herself?

And this isn’t a girl-centric thing, in my opinion. Parker recently informed me that he was handsome, not cute and Celia was pretty. He said boys are handsome and girls are pretty. He frequently describes things as beautiful—our Christmas tree, horses, his aunt’s newly painted house. At three, he already clearly understands what beauty is . While it should be something simple every child learns, it makes me wonder—have I already said too much about the way things and people look around him? Have I described his sister as pretty, his father as handsome instead of emphasizing the other fantastic qualities that we have?

And this is not unlike when I wrote about Parker playing soccer. In reading this article, I saw that the way we talk about what they do is almost as important as being there and seeing it. Our response to them is so often communicated strictly with the words we choose. No pressure Moms and Dads.

This brought me back to the first piece of parenting advice I remember reading when Parker was just a baby. “Praise the action, not the child.” Instead of, “you’re so smart” you say, “wow, you know a lot of facts about animals.” Instead of, “you are a good boy” you say, “you really had good behavior all day.” And, although this article didn’t state this, I would expect that instead of saying, “You’re so pretty,” you might opt for, “I love the way you look in that blue dress.”

But for a Mom like me, who looks for positive reinforcement all too often in my marriage, parenting and career, this is a difficult shift to make.

So that leads me to this. As parents, we are the first people to both intentionally and unintentionally label our children. We all can recount the titles we were given in our families, in our peer groups or even in the workplace. If these labels are positive, we tend to rise to the occasion and make sure we fulfill expectations. This can be a good kind of pressure in some cases. However, sometimes it can really go awry. Fulfilling the label of smart, pretty, thin or funny might work well for some people— but over the course of your life might ignite unnecessary pressure. After all, these are words that become labels. Labels that are hard to always live up to. Labels that are hard to remove at will. Labels that could, in many cases, limit the children we give them to.

So, in talking to children, I am making a conscious effort to do the following: praise them on their actions, the words they choose and the behavior I see. Or, rather, stifle the need to praise them at all. Ask them about their day, their favorite color, their favorite super hero. Engage them. Learn from them. Listen to them. They have a lot to talk about. We have a lot of listening we need to do.

As adults, we know that if someone stood there and said how beautiful or brilliant or physically fit we were upon meeting us, it would seem a little awkward and shallow (but I would enjoy it, okay, I’ll admit it:). With children, it should be no different. Your words should neither define nor demand a certain quality of a child—be it beauty, intelligence or even just “good”-ness. Your real feeling about them should be communicated in how you react to what they think about themselves. Because what they think about themselves should be born inside them and should never be hinged on the words that come out of our mouths.

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