by Andie Vazquez
I started an article a while back specifically about how your children hear you speak about your body, and I still will discuss that, but I’d like to expand the horizon a little.
Stop occasionally and listen to how your kids speak to themselves and each other. Children hear much more than you think they do. They hear how you speak about your body, they hear how you speak to the other drivers on the highway, they hear how you speak when you are happy and when you are frustrated. Then they will take all this absorbed speech and begin to themselves use it. This is one reason self degrading speech in small kids is alarming because they didn’t manifest the thoughts on their own, they are repeating thoughts they’ve heard verbalized by adults in their life.
The more I am around a large number of other people’s kids, I am noticing this more. I know I have a different way of speaking than would be common or normal for most kids. And I’ve heard my words wind their way into the kids’ speech. Most modern 5 year olds are not likely to use the word “lollygagging” but the longer the school year has gone on, the more I’ve heard it. A child the other day told me a friend was antagonizing him, a word he had previously asked me the meaning of when I’d used it.
I’ve also noticed beyond my odd lexicon, they’ve even adopted my speech patterns and habits. I make it a point to praise them when they do well. I am constantly spreading words of encouragement to the students. Gradually, the students have begun praising and encouraging one another, and doing it in the same exact manner in which I do it. They have even begun showing one another their work and congratulating each other on how well they are doing.
In a more solemn tone, when one friend is upset, I’ve seen them go and comfort their friends more rapidly, and mimic the same movements and tones they see me use when I am comforting a hurting friend. They see every movement I make, and I can see in real time how I am unconsciously imparting myself onto them.
Many adults are more than likely unaware of how they are affecting their children in how they speak. Particularly when they aren’t speaking to the child. But it is very important to remember that children hear and see much much more than we think they do. Children repeat what they hear. So, perhaps you and your partner discuss current politics at the dinner table, your kids will repeat it at school. If your kids hear you and your partner arguing, they will mimic you when they get into an argument with their friends. This isnt always a negative thing, but it can be.
Studies show that children in Elementary school are already showing displeasure in their physical appearance and wish to be more thin. Elementary School. That’s ages 7-11. Preschool teachers have reported children as young as 2-5 developing negative self images. Where are kids that young getting the idea that they are fat and ugly and need to be on diets? Why are such small children so negatively speaking about themselves? They hear it from adults.
“But I would never tell my child they were fat!!” parents may say. No, I don’t think you do. What I do think is that you probably don’t realize your child hears you speak about yourself. You probably don’t think they notice when you grimace in the mirror. You don’t notice how you talk to yourself in the grocery store about needing to eat healthier because of all that extra weight you’ve put on. They soak in everything. They see your relationship with food, with your body, with your self image.
How do you react when you are frustrated? I bet your children could tell you. They see that too, and they emulate it. I can see it in the children in the classroom. Do you huff and yell when you are frustrated? Do you give up and say you can’t do it? Kids see how you act when things aren’t going your way, and they see it as a model for their own frustrating situations.
How you purposely speak to your children is important too. I can tell you exactly which parents make a point to praise their children and compliment them because these are the children that throw praise and compliments around like confetti. I’m glad to say, it’s quite a few of them. Most children I am incontact with are oozing with love and confidence. But the difference is we are very aware of this speech and take care to do it appropriately. It’s the times we aren’t thinking about it that shock us.
Look, I’m not an overflowing well of self confidence. I’ve complained about my tummy pudge. I’ve verbally berated myself for being stupid. I’ve gotten angry at my partner and said mean things I shouldn’t have. None of us are perfect. However, being aware of how much kids recreate their parents behaviour has made me so much more conscious of my own behaviour and speech.
Some of the ways you can help your children in this area is in part the deliberate way you speak to them. When they are really getting on your nerves, how do you respond to them? This will inform them both about your relationship with them and how to respond to others who irritate them. Do you ask them open-ended questions and listen to them answer? This will open the opportunity to discuss big questions and how they view the world. Are you allowing them to engage with the grocery shopping and cooking process? This will help them shape their view of food and health. Do you praise them when they do well or when they do something you ask? This will reinforce positive behaviour and speech. Have you ever sat down with your kids and asked them to tell you a story about their favorite activity and why it’s their favorite? This lets them know their feelings are important and they are valuable. Are you speaking down to them or in a level respectful way? All of these things are things parents can be aware and conscious of when they are speaking directly to their children. All of them will affect how they interact with other people, with you, and how they see themselves. How you are directly speaking to them does make a big difference. How you listen to them is equally as important.
There are however indirect ways in which our kids absorb our speech and behaviours. These happen when our kids see and hear us talk or act, but we aren’t speaking to them. These may be in how they see us interact with other adults and what we talk about with them. What we do when we get into disagreements with our partner or how we speak to our partners on a daily basis. How we speak to ourselves about ourselves. Are you using positive language to talk about yourself? This isn’t just in regards to physical appearance, though it does apply to that. How do you speak to yourself when you make a mistake? Do you say, “Oh, I’m so dumb!”? This shows them when they mess up, they are dumb, becasue you think you are. How do you speak to yourself when you are struggling with a task? This tells children how you persevere and how they should. Children see how we deal with these situations as well and they will internalize them.
On the most basic level, the manner in which you speak is being imparted to them. Do you talk in a soft airy voice or a loud booming voice? Are you likely to use the word “jazzed” in common conversation? What word do you say when you stub your toe? I promise your kids notice this and interject it into their speech. Your patterns, syntax and vocabulary are all being heard and emulated by your kids. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. As I mentioned above, the kids in my room are learning new and unusual words from me and expanding their vocabulary and that is good. Your child trying to sound like you when you speak is just a way they look up to you. But it has potential to be dangerous so be careful. I’ve also heard kids call each other cruel names that aren’t normal for 4-6 year olds, or scream and belittle each other when they are mad at one another. We give our kids so much more than we realize just by being our normal selves. That is why it is so important to be sure we are giving them something positive.
In summary, your kids are watching you and will internalize your behaviors and adopt them. We, as the adults in children’s lives need to be more aware of what we are modeling for them to absorb. We intend to give them good things to copy, but we don’t always achieve that goal. It’s okay. We can all always do better, no matter who you are, so be aware of yourself. And maybe, like myself, this means we need to learn to love and appreciate ourselves a little bit more to be sure we are teaching our kids to love and appreciate themselves.
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