The power of words

In Other Words


If I had a penny for how many times I’ve used the phrase “Use your words,” over the last two years, I’d be, as they say, rich. My house at this time is like an intensive English-language boot camp. My three-year-old daughter is at that stage all children pass through where her emotions far outpace her command of the English language. Although perhaps this is a stage not restricted to childhood. As adults, putting emotions, wishes, fears, and angers into the right words is sometimes equally elusive.

So it’s no wonder that adults and precocious toddlers butt heads when communication barriers prohibit real understanding of oversized emotions. It’s also no wonder that they pick up on the bad language that we let slip as much as the good language we so ferociously try to teach. And as funny as it is when a pint-sized little creature lets slip a well placed four-letter word, it’s also alarming.

We are not totally to blame; children pick up bad language from everywhere and there is really no sheltering them from it. The parenting gurus tell us that we are supposed to simply ignore the use of a bad word and they will stop using it, otherwise we end up demonstrating just how much power a certain word can carry.

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I understand that thought in practice — ignore bad words, reward good words — but in reality I find it slightly contradictory. I’m constantly telling my daughter just how powerful her words actually are. “Use your words,” is the mantra, but beneath it lies the meaning: your words have incredible value and are powerful, I will listen to you and most likely grant your request if you speak nicely. So isn’t that what we are trying to teach them, that words have power?

The powers that be also tell us to teach our children to simply ignore it if another child is mean to them on the playground. But, if we are teaching our children to ignore both actions and words, where does that get them?

A playground taunt frequently heard says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Most likely this ageless chant came from an attempt to ignore a bully, but I wonder if it is teaching our children that their words don’t have power over others? Perhaps a better quote to teach them would be that of Pearl Strachan: “Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs.”

As I try to find a way to impress upon my young daughter that words and actions have a breadth of power and influence over others, I try to gain some understanding myself.

Are we, as parents, really teaching our children our own moral code, or are we teaching them what we wish our moral code would be? At any given hour there is a stream of commands directed at children: say please, pick up your toys, brush your teeth, eat your peas. How often do we phrase our commands to our children with as much respect as we’d like our children to speak to others? In this case, are they learning by listening to our words or our actions?

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I understand that what I say to my daughter is important and that she does hear me, even if I have to repeat myself a hundred times. I understand that I should ignore the bad-bad words, bad behavior, bad manners, and reward the good-good words, good behavior, good manners. As I watch what she is actually internalizing, I get the feeling that what I say matters so much less than what I do.

I don’t know if they actually say the “sticks and stones” chant on the playground anymore, but as my daughter grows up, I will try to rise to the challenge of teaching her to be aware of both her words and actions, and maybe to develop a thick skin for those words that aren’t directed with such care.


Reader Comments

EMILY writes:

The phrase Use Your Words has no discernible meaning, unless you put an adjective at the end of it. Such as -Use your words wisely. Lets dissect the phrase: Use - well, if you utter a word - ANY word - you are using it. your - so this means, the word you uttered belongs to you, because you said it. words - redundant. In other words, the phrase USE YOUR WORDS is nonsensical, and stupid in that it makes absolutely NO sense.

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