The words that hurt

17th October 2003 at 01:00
We often say things we don't mean, unaware of the devastating effect they can have on impressionable children, says Lynn Wanders

I dropped my elder son off at the local outdoor education centre. It was a real breath of fresh air after a stuffy week indoors in front of the computer. The centre was built in the heart of woodland on an expanse of rolling green grass. This is where he would venture the high ropes and climb the tower, challenge some of his fears, conquer them, and feel good about himself.

It was while returning to the car, taking in this rich, relaxing setting that one of the children, whom I had seen wandering in the wide open space, decided to walk with me for a while. The 10-year-old boy peered at me through his thick-rimmed glasses and then very matter of factly stated: "My carer says I drive her up the wall."

Why he decided to tell me, a stranger, I have no idea, but my instant reply was "she wouldn't have meant it". He stopped still for a second, thought about that, and then was off to join the rest of the children gathering at the main building.

The boy's words haunted me the rest of the day. How had he internalised that expression? How did it make him feel? How would those words affect his future actions? We are well-intentioned and in moments of exasperation can say things we don't mean, but do children understand this? And is it because the child drives the carer up the wall or is it the carer not knowing how to handle the child that causes such words to spew forth?

We are all doing the best we can. And we are also capable of doing so much better, given the resources. As a coach, I know that isolated expressions or words like these in our formative years can become imprinted in our psyche. We start being careful how we act around others and are so concerned about getting things right, to be accepted, that we can lose touch with who we are.

Many fears that we live with as adults are born out of brash, often emotionally charged comments like these. We all have them. They give us that feeling of not being good enough, and affect the way we relate to people. So how can we as teachers, parents and carers of our children help them to feel good about themselves, and to realise their full potential?

First, by being more responsible with the words we use and how we use them.

When a child needs to be made aware that his behaviour is not acceptable, talk about the behaviour not his whole identity.

"You drive me up the wall" and "you are stupid" are examples of statements at the identity level. The child is not his behaviour; a particular behaviour is only one aspect of the child as a whole. Writing a child off with such sweeping statements aimed at the level of identity passes judgment on him as a complete person, and lowers his self-esteem.

It is far more effective to name the inappropriate behaviour: to make clear it is not him but the behaviour that is not acceptable, and that he can change the behaviour. Also, respectfully ask the child to suggest a more appropriate way of behaving, or if the child is at a loss, give examples to encourage and guide him.

Then have the child imagine he is seeing, hearing and feeling how it is to act this way in the future.

A child who knows how to behave appropriately is a child who is on the path to becoming a responsible, confident adult. Eliciting the appropriate behaviour from the child in a respectful way encourages the child to take charge of his own actions and builds his self-esteem.

Let's make sure our children hear words that inspire them. Words that open up a world of possibility for them. Not words that label and limit them. In the words of Goethe: "Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being" We want our children to feel good about themselves, because only then will they grow up being all that they can be.

Lynn Wanders, a former teacher, is a personal and professional coach.

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