Young children live in a magical world where pretend feels real and it is hard to know where fantasy ends & truth begins. Not yet executive functioning thinkers, they depend on adults to teach them logic, reality and truth. Parents and teachers are their most trusted adults. They believe what you say. We know that young children have a less mature sense of humor. When we attempt sarcasm, they do not laugh. When movies for children include adult humor, we say, “It went over their heads.” Why, then, do we expect them to understand when we are being facetious or sarcastic? Or worse, perhaps our own fears cause us to say things in the guise of humor.
When we attempt sarcasm, teasing or are testing beliefs about our own perceived weaknesses, we can damage children. We can have an impact on their sense of self-worth. Throughout my career, I have heard parents and teachers say things to children with no intent to damage but also without compassion and thought. Children believe you are telling the truth. Children integrate what you say to and about them so that your statements become part of their self-image. When you are talking to children, don’t tell them:
- “I do not love you.” It sounds like an unlikely statement but I’ve heard parents say it. A child wants a toy and starts to have a tantrum in a store. The parent says, “That’s right – I’m mean because I don’t love you.” Your eye rolling and sarcasm is lost on the child. A young child says, “I love you, Mommy” and the mother replies with a wink, “Well I don’t love you.” The child believes it. Never joke about not loving your child particularly when that child is still a pre-operational thinker. Children don’t begin to develop a more sophisticated sense of humor until at least age 8 and even after that, it’s not funny. Love isn’t a joke, shouldn’t be a pawn in a game and is so rare in this world. You are your child’s safe place and saying, “I do not love you” chips away at a child’s trust in his/her ability to be loved.
- “I bet you can’t….” Adults should be saying, “I believe in you” and “I know you can,” not “I bet you can’t.” When we try to get children to perform a task by saying, “I bet you can’t clean up the toys” or “I bet you don’t know how to write your name,” we send a message of doubt rather than support. Taunting children into action by expressing doubt in their ability makes them question their own capabilities. Children might try to prove you wrong and perform the task but the damage has been done. The challenge is from a place of negativity, a place of lack of faith in them. Children need their most trusted adults to send messages of belief in them and faith in their abilities. When we say, “I believe in you,” it boosts their perception of capability.
- “Don’t cry” or “Don’t be scared.” Crying is the appropriate physical reaction to sadness, a normal emotion. Fear also a normal emotion and actually exists to protect us from danger. When we say, “Don’t cry” or “Don’t be scared,” we are telling children that their feelings are not normal and not undesirable. We all feel sadness and fear sometimes. We all get angry, frustrated and upset. It is our job to teach coping techniques, not to invalidate their normal feelings. We should tell children who are crying or are scared that they will be okay and we are here to help them.
Parenting is hard. Working with children can be challenging. It is important that our own frustrations or baggage do not seep into our conversations with children. Negativity from adults breeds a negative self-image. Be intentional and careful when you speak to children. Remember that your words form their sense of self.
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