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The Power of Words

Air Date: 07/06/10 Cheryl can be reached at 775-331-6723, or at've been thinking a lot about words. I enjoy words; they're fun to play with. And words are the tools of my trade, so I spend a lot of time with them. I talk for a living--when I'm not writing, that is. Words and their nuances are an integral part of my everyday life, and that fact makes me realize--again and again--how much power there is in words.There's a Bible verse that says, "death and life are in the power of the tongue." That warning should have a special meaning to parents, whose words shape the entire world and many of the perceptions of their children. Parents tell their children, sometimes without meaning to or even being aware that they're doing so, who they are and what is possible for them. And sometimes what children hear causes more pain and confusion than their parents realize. You are a powerful person in your child's universe. Even when she defies you, disagrees with you, or stands up for her own ideas and perceptions, she remains extraordinarily sensitive to your attitudes, opinions, and decrees. Unfortunately, parents are very human folks, and when they get angry, frustrated, or exhausted, parents are capable of saying things they may regret later on. When I teach parenting workshops, I often ask if there's anyone in the room who has never said something he regretted to his children. No one yet has raised a hand. You may forget the words you speak in anger as soon as you calm down but your children may remember for a very long time. How powerful are words? A friend told me once that when his daughter was young, she was accident-prone. She was forever scraping knees and elbows, bruising herself, and falling down. He and his wife would fuss and mend her injuries and then say to her, "Be more careful! You know how accident-prone you are!" One day, when they were on vacation, the girl ran out the door and right into a stationary object, dazing herself and leaving a big bruise. And my friend and his wife realized something had to change. They began sending their daughter a different message. When she hurt herself, they would say, "That's not like you, honey." Or they would fix her up, calmly and kindly, and then tell her to go have fun. They found ways to tell her she was capable and competent. And gradually things changed. Six months later they realized she hadn't had an accident in weeks."Oh, come on," you may be thinking. "Just because of a few words?" Yes, because of a few words--powerful, because they come from Mom or Dad. Take a moment and think back. Can you remember something a parent said to you that encouraged and energized you? Or something that cut you to the heart? I have spoken to teenagers whose test results tell me they are highly intelligent, yet who are flunking everything and who believe they are "stupid" and will never amount to anything. Why? Because an adult has spent their lifetime telling them so. What happens when a mother tells her son, "You're just like your dad"--and the boy knows mom thinks his dad is a total jerk?I know perfectly healthy children who believe they need to lose weight because a parent teased them about their chubby cheeks, or got angry and made an unkind comment about some part of their anatomy. I know others who hear nothing but criticism and believe their parents love them only when they're living up to expectations. Children want desperately to please their parents, to find belonging and significance in their families. I know children who worry that somehow, their parents must be right about them. Maybe they won't amount to anything.Word stick. They're like toothpaste: once they're squeezed out of the tube, you can apologize but you can't put the words back where they came from. They stay spoken. And when children hear negative things about themselves over and over again even if you're just teasing or angry, there's a part of them that takes those words deep inside and makes them a part of their identity. After all, if Mom or Dad says it, it must be true. Right? As best you can, try to avoid labeling your children. They're not bad; they're not stupid or lazy, they're not monsters. Occasionally, take time to notice what's right about them. Yes, raising children can be a challenge, and even the most loving parent gets discouraged and angry. But we're supposed to be the grown-ups here. When things go wrong, remember that discipline is meant to teach, not to put down or humiliate. Take time to cool off yourself before you attempt to correct your child. And if you've said unkind things in anger even if you think you're right be an adult and take responsibility. Apologize to your child if you think you should, and do your best to resurrect her self-esteem. Remember, people tend to do better when they feel better. Words are powerful, especially if you use them to build connection and confidence, and to paint a picture of the person you believe your child can become. For KUNR, this is Cheryl Erwin.