“Use Your Words!” – Helping your child have a voice

“Children should be seen and not heard” was the mantra for raising well behaved children for many, many generations.   As we learn more about early childhood and as societal norms have changed, children have more opportunity than ever to have a voice and be heard.  The question becomes — have we taught our children the words and tone of voice to use?

At preschool we believe that all behavior is a form of communication. Part of our job is to take that communication and put words and feelings to it.  So when there is conflict, upset or “bad” behavior, we like to look at those situations as an opportunity to teach new skills.  We not only teach children to use their words, but we help them with what those words are.

You may be seeing more acting out kinds of behaviors with your children now that everyone is home so much.  Maybe that’s because you are all spending more time together, and they have more opportunities to engage in conflict.  Maybe their fears are masquerading as challenging behaviors and they don’t quite know how to cope.  Or maybe you are not seeing any changes, but you know that your child’s style of communicating his/her wants and needs could use some fine tuning.

Because my mother was one of those children who grew up in the era of “children should be seen and not heard,” she determined early on that I would have a voice.  She wanted me to have the opportunity to express my thoughts, needs and wants.  Until I become a teenager, and then, she didn’t.  Permission to say what I wanted without the proper training didn’t work out well for me a lot of the time.  I may have felt entitled to say what I wanted, but I was often perceived as a know-it-all, bossy and even a bully.  I may have had permission, but I did not have the skill or maturity to handle this gift of freedom of expression well.  Learning to express thoughts and feelings should start with training and modeling from a very young age.

So, how do we help children be able to use their voice in an appropriate way?  We start by assuming that bad behavior is a call for help. We help children focus on what they need or want. We help them have more awareness of themselves and others by slowing down, breathing and describing for them what we see.  We help children access the problem solving parts of their brains.  We model the correct words and tone.  We label feelings and help children work through those feelings.  We coach them on managing their disappointment.  We teach empathy.  It is hard work, but the payoff is well worth it.

We often tell our kids to “Use your words,” but the truth is many times they have no idea what words to use.  When children are very young, they only know to say “STOP IT.”  One of our jobs is to model more words as they mature and have bigger vocabularies.  The “STOP” from a 2 year old can turn into “Stop! Give me the truck back. I am playing with it.  You can have a turn in a minute,” or “Stop kicking me. It hurts.” Giving kids more words that just “STOP” is helpful because it gives the offender more information and it gives you information when you step into the middle of a conflict. Teaching the “victim” to have an assertive voice that tells others what he wants will help build his confidence to problem solve on his own as he continues to practice.

What about the offender? It’s easy to say to her, “Don’t grab toys.  Grabbing is not nice.”  But this doesn’t teach a new skill – it just tells the child she was bad.

Saying “You wanted to play with the truck and you didn’t know how to ask, so you grabbed it.  Grabbing is not safe.  When you want the truck, you say ‘Can I have a turn with the truck?’ Try that now,” gives a child a lot of information to use.

Notice the child has been giving the benefit of the doubt (you didn’t know how to ask); she was given appropriate words (can I have a turn?); and she was given an opportunity to practice the new skill.

As you practice, some of your conversations may start to sound something like this:

  • You wanted my attention so you kept saying my name over and over again.  When you do that, I don’t have time to think and respond.  If you want my attention, please say my name once and count to ten.  If I haven’t responded, come up to me and put your hand on my arm, make eye contact and ask your question.  Let’s practice that now.”
  • It seems like your brother’s actions are bothering you and so you yelled at him.  You couldn’t think of any other way to get him to stop doing blank.  Yelling is not really helpful.  You can say, “I’m working on this and I want to concentrate.  I will play with you after dinner.” Try that now.  If it doesn’t work, come ask for help.
  • You wanted a snack and I said “no, lunch is in a few minutes” so you started kicking and screaming.  You seemed really angry.  Let’s breathe for a few minutes and then we will talk about it.  You can do this.  Next time you could ask if we can have lunch a little early.

There are millions of different scenarios that could take place where you can teach your child to grow his/her social skill set, but all of them require the same components: a calm parent, a calm child, some positive intent and empathy.  Then give children the words to use to express what they want, and help them practice those words in the moment.

It was always amazing to me how much growth I saw in the children in my class as they learned these new social skills.  A lot of tattling and whining went away as children felt more empowered to speak for themselves and to solve their own problems in a productive way.  It took a lot of work and a lot of practice, but it was well worth the effort.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”- Jeremiah 29:11

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