Words To Love By

istock_000001127795xsmallI gotta tell you–there’s nothing that makes me cringe more than hearing someone describe their infant as a “good” baby. You know what I’m talking about. You ask how it’s going and they say, “Oh, great. Conner is such a GOOD baby.”

I know what they mean–he’s an EASY baby–doesn’t cry a lot, sleeps for several hours at a time, that sort of thing. Got it. But what if you happen to be a parent whose baby isn’t having such a blissful start? What if he cries and doesn’t sleep so well and you are killing yourself trying to figure out what’s wrong? And then your friend says her baby is “good?” Does that mean yours is BAD?? Did you get a lemon, or are you just really bad at this parenting gig?

It’s a subtle thing but language really matters when it comes to how we talk about our kids. It affects how we think about them, how we think about ourselves and how they think about themselves, too. It may start out innocently enough (he’s a good baby) but can easily turn into a not-so-great pattern that we fall into without realizing it.

Next thing we know we may catch ourselves in the heat of the moment telling our child he’s a “bad boy.” Now we’ve taken it to a whole new level and this time the consequences of our words can have real and damaging impact because until a child is about six, he takes what he hears to be true. Literally.

If you tell him he’s a “bad boy,” he’ll believe you and may begin to act that way more often. Why not if the person he counts on most has told him that’s the way he is? He can’t understand that you just mean he’s a bad boy at this moment. And he won’t be able to for some time. He simply hears it as a statement of fact. He’s bad. Case closed. This is just basic science and it’s related to his stage of cognitive development, or his ability to reason and understand, which changes as he grows.

So it’s incredibly important for you to distinguish between him and his behavior. And to make sure that anyone else who cares for him understands this, too. Little guys and gals need lots of help in figuring out what they’re feeling and how they can use words instead of actions to express those feelings, especially when they’re mad or frustrated.

When he misbehaves, you could say,”Tommy, I don’t like what you did. I know that you are a good boy but that behavior was not good and I’m very disappointed about how you acted.” This helps him to begin to see himself as separate from his behavior and also gets him to start thinking about how he can make choices about how he acts. And most importantly, he gets the message that even when he makes mistakes you still love him. That alone creates a big incentive for him to do better.

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.


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One response to “Words To Love By”

  1. mary pat fuchs

    good article Ellen, language, at this early and tender age, is very important.

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