Words are a carrier of our thoughts; they elucidate our emotions, pain, joy, frustrations, ideas & play through meaningful sounds. When we hear words, images pop in our minds; words take us to faraway places and make us laugh. They evoke memories and instantly bring up deeply buried scars. A single word has the capacity to make our day, decide our mood and steer our course of action.
Words are so much more than just sounds.
Yet, how often do we pay attention to the words we use?
When a child is born, it is only a matter of time before we start to describe them, box them – “He is so naughty. Look at him reaching for the ball”, “Don’t pick her up, she is manipulating you”, “She is such a picky-eater, just like Tina” , “Mine is such a brat, what about yours?”
While many of us catch ourselves using such words, those seemingly harmless & casual remarks, how many of us pause to think about these words we use?
Why do our words matter?
- Words decide the way we approach our children
Let us assume we have named a child a fussy-eater. “Tara has always been such a fussy eater!” When we pin this on Tara, our attitudes and approach towards her changes drastically. We now view her AS a fussy-eater. We tell ourselves “Okay, my child IS a fussy eater.” We acknowledge this in our minds and every time we approach this child, we are going to approach A fussy eater.
So, how would we approach & handle this child? Would we be patient, empathetic and respectful or would we be impatient, irritable and stern?
Our brains are shaped by the words we hear, the words we speak, by our mental chatter. So, if we tell ourselves, “Tara is a fussy-eater”, we will not just approach her with less empathy and patience, we will also be unconsciously looking for ways to confirm that thought, that belief that Tara is a fussy eater.
- Words become their inner-voice
Children carry our voices with them throughout their lives. Overcoming these voices in adulthood takes conscious acknowledgement & effort.
Let us take an example, in Southern India, being fair-complexioned is considered essential for women. If, however, you do not fit this box, many women are commented on for their ‘lack of colour’, their ‘dull appearance’ and the likes. Or, they are given suggestions : “Why don’t you apply this new fairness cream? , “Have you tried using olive oil and turmeric?” As a girl who grew up in this society, everytime I bask in the sun, I pause for a moment and wonder what would happen if I lost my complexion because a dear one repeatedly told me that being fair IS essential. Like this, don’t we all have our own insecurities about ourselves fed by the people who surrounded us in early childhood?
The words we use become the voice for children and as significant members in their lives, it becomes increasingly hard to ignore the voices that nurture them in early childhood.
- Words put children in a box
Being in a box can be very limiting because all humans change and grow throughout their lives. When we have called a child terrible at math, they believe this to be true and every time they make an honest attempt at trying to understand math, our words will hold them back! Even labelling a child ‘perfect’ and ‘amazing at everything’ is counterproductive. This is because, we now put this child on a pedestal from which they cannot fall. Very often, such children find it hard to live up to these expectations; they find it easier to hide parts of them rather than disappoint loved ones.
- Words become their identity
When we attach labels to our children, these become their identity. This is hard for young children who find it difficult to understand that we love them regardless of these identities.
As Veer grows, he will believe these to be true and his behaviour will begin to support these labels. These will become his identity! Now, some of these labels might hold him back from exploring what else he can do; they can also hold him back from being open to experiences because of the fear of losing his identity!
Where to go from here?
The truth is, as caregivers it is hard for us to not form any opinion about our children as their personalities take shape. However, by calling a 2 year old a fussy eater, we limit the capabilities of this child. Our 2 year old may not yet be open to trying all foods. But this is their journey; the ups & downs contribute towards growth. They may go through phases where they are enthusiastic about some foods and not as much about others. Children (and adults) are a work in progress. This is what we must be mindful of.
So, going forward, it does not mean we are wary of every word we say. However, it is important to watch what ideas we are feeding our children about themselves using our words; what words are we using to identify them because how we word it is how we will think about it.
Do we look at our children as horrible-nappers, fussy-eaters & math geeks or do we let them be? Do we let them show us how different life- experiences are moulding and transforming them?
“We are always in a perpetual state of being created and creating ourselves.”Dan Siegel, The Developing Mind