“You’re a baaaad baby!”
That’s what my three-year-old says to me when I give him a verbal correction or consequence for bad behavior. I don’t know if he’s talking about himself for the bad behavior or me for the correction, but either way, I don’t like it. And I don’t know where he learned it.
It’s negative and critical.
It doesn’t speak life.
And it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me.
You might be thinking,
“What’s the big deal? There are certainly worse things he could say. It’s actually kind of funny.”
And nine years ago, when I was just stepping into my role as a parent, it probably wouldn’t have bothered me. At least not the way it bothers me now.
But along the way, some very wise and more experienced parents gave us some advice that we’ve taken to heart. They challenged us to pay close attention to the language we use around our children.
To “speak life,” as the song goes, instead of death and judgment.
To elevate the virtue we desire over the vice we despise.
To use positive words even when the message we’re delivering is necessarily a critique.
So when our oldest was just an infant, we began to pay better attention to our word choice around the house. Sadly, we were amazed at how many negative words we threw around without much thought at all. Most of the time, we didn’t even really mean what we were saying, but with negative language trickling into every nook and cranny of our culture, we had picked up some bad habits that were becoming deeply engrained. And we quickly realized there was a lot of work to be done to retrain ourselves into a more life-breathing way of speaking!
In casual conversation, it wasn’t uncommon for us to say things like:
“That was rude.”
“She sure was mean.”
“That’s pretty selfish.”
Or to use the word “hate” to describe things we simply didn’t prefer.
Our mentors encouraged us to express our thoughts differently.
“He is rude” became “That wasn’t very respectful.” (Notice the focus is on the behavior, not the person.)
“She sure is mean” became “That was unkind.”
And “Their pretty selfish” became “That wasn’t very generous.”
They also encouraged us to strip the word “hate” from our vocabulary. (As a result, our kids think “hate” is a curse word!)
We began working on it, and over a period of time, we managed to change our language. Now words like “rude,” “mean,” or “selfish” strike a nerve with me. Especially when they come out of the mouths of young children who are too innocent and pure for that kind of speech.
It seems like a subtle change, but it has had a huge impact on the environment in our home. Because instead of harping on the vice, we now try to focus on the virtue. We speak using the word that describes the behavior we want to see in ourselves and our kids. And it’s so much easier to say, “That wasn’t very respectful” in a loving way than it is to lovingly say, “You were so rude!” So the shift in word choice has also helped improve our delivery and tone.
It’s been incredibly beneficial in the area of child training as well. By consistently making the virtue our word of choice, we began drawing mental pictures for our children about what it looks like (and doesn’t look like) to exhibit behavior that is respectful, kind, patient, generous, thankful, obedient, honest, and a host of other virtues we hope to see in them. As a result, the kids began to grasp these abstract concepts at an earlier age than they might have otherwise.
Now, when our children aren’t being kind to one another, we might say something like this:
“In this house, we will treat each other with kindness. You may go sit on your bed and think about why what you did was unkind. When you’re ready to make it right with your brother and to show kindness to him, you may come find us.”
Or when one of our children is being impatient, we might say something like this:
“That was not very patient. I’m going to set the timer for five minutes, and you may practice waiting patiently for your dinner. When the timer goes off, you may try asking for your dinner again in the right way.”
Or if one of them uses a not-so-respectful-tone with us, we might say this:
“I’m so sorry, but you are speaking a language I don’t understand. We speak to one another using respectful words and tone. When you are ready to speak respectfully to me, we can try to have this conversation again.”
These statements were awkward for us to put together at first. But over time, we got used to them, and they have become part of who we are as parents. And I have to admit, it sounds so much better to frame our correction in a positive way than to adopt the negative alternative that elevates the vice over the virtue. We don’t always get it right, of course, but it’s a wonderful baseline that helps us to breathe life into our kids instead of death and judgment.
It also provides a calming effect for Kory and me as we respond to these scenarios and so many more that tend to rear their not-so-pretty heads as we are raising three kids. By focusing on the virtue, we are better equipped to keep our own behavior in check. To speak calmly. To keep our voices down (which is a challenge for both of us because we are, by nature, very loud talkers). To speak respectfully to our children even when we are correcting them.
And that’s always a good thing.
Are you characterized by speaking life? If not, what words or phrases might you consider stripping from your vocabulary to make a life-breathing change in your relationships with others?