The power of words

Ian Munro
Ian Munro
"You’ve been really growly at me all holidays. Even when I’ve been good and I haven’t done anything wrong." Ill-chosen words, writes Ian Munro.

They take seconds to say but, said at a particular moment, can have quite an impact on a child, particularly when they don’t quite understand what’s going on with you. In fact, some words can have a lifetime’s impact.

Equally, some well-chosen words can have a similar impact. Some of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had have been when I’ve come across a former student who’s said something like, "I remember when you said ..." Then goes on to say something like, "I’ve never forgotten that. You probably didn’t realise what it meant to me at the time." Or a daughter has said, "it didn’t mean much at the time, but later when ..."

We can all probably come up with an example about something that someone said to us way back that still warms us. Or still haunts us.

We all need to feel wanted and approved. We all need encouragement and reassurance, particularly from the important people in our lives.

It’s been said that "praise is the polish that keeps our self-image sparkling". When we feel better, we work better, we relate to others better.

However, there’s a balance needed. Unwarranted praise can be harmful, especially when a child knows it’s not warranted. The mediocre becomes good enough, while telling a child they played well when they know they didn’t, waters down the strength of your praise on other occasions.

Constantly praising children can also mean that praise becomes an end in itself. They constantly seek it, fear failure and avoid challenges. Later in life, when praise is usually thin on the ground, they often have trouble coping.

The best way to "polish" without creating these problems is to notice when they do well and express your pleasure quite specifically.

For example, Johnny didn’t have a good game and he knows it, so avoid making a general statement that he did. Tell him, instead, how impressed you were with a particular action.

Sally has behaved well. Avoid telling her that she’s been "a good girl today". Describe exactly what it is that’s made you pleased.

"I liked seeing the way you shared with Jo."

"You made a nice job of mowing the lawns."

Whenever I think or talk about this, I come back to a poster I once saw.

"Be positive!," it said and listed "words that encourage kids": I like your smile, you’re very special, we’re so pleased with you for ..., I believe you can do it, that’s great, good job, what did you like best about today?, thanks for your help and we love you.

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