Things you shouldn't say to your child
12:28 (GMT+2), Thu, 15 September 2011
Think about something hurtful that someone said to you and how it made you feel. The things people say affect us significantly. We all occasionally say things we regret, but when it comes to our children, there are certain things we should never say. The words we use around them can affect their development, social interactions and attitude to life.
"Children are intensely aware of the things that are said around them," says Pretoria-based clinical psychologist Wendy Greyvensteyn. "Often, it appears as if they're not listening to 'adult talk', when in fact, they're absorbing and processing everything they hear." It's therefore important for parents to be aware not only of what they say to their children, but also what they say to others and the language they use around their children.
Wendy explains that we're all born without much knowledge of how to relate to others or what to believe about ourselves. As we develop, we formulate certain concepts about the world around us, and words have a profound impact on how we learn to perceive ourselves, others and our environment. "A parent who's constantly negative will teach their child to perceive things in this way, too," Wendy points out.
What not to say
There are four basic categories of things you shouldn't say to your children:
Saying things like:
• "You're pathetic at sports; you have no athletic ability."
• "You should never have done it that way; it's so stupid."
• "You're such a naughty child."
"There's a difference between helping your child to recognise and address her faults and constantly criticising her and breaking down her self-worth," says Wendy. When you degrade your child, you teach her to focus on her negative trait, at the expense of her positive traits.
• "That's ridiculous! How can you be upset about that?"
• "You're getting fat. You should lose some weight."
• "You're just a child; what do you know?"
One of the worst things you can do to your child is to belittle her, especially in public. "You also become condescending when you ignore your child's feelings or experiences," warns Wendy. "Acknowledge the emotions and thoughts your child has, even if you can't relate to them. Otherwise, she'll begin to feel that she's insignificant."
• "Here comes my little Porky Pig/Dumbo Ears."
• "The fat rolls under your chin are so cute!"
• "Don't be such a cry-baby."
Although it can be all too easy to let a swear word slip out when your child throws a tantrum in Woolies or when a taxi driver cuts you off in traffic, try keep your cool in front of your little ones. More importantly, you should never swear at your child, or call her any form of derogatory name, as this will affect her sense of self-worth. "Cursing or swearing at a child will also teaches her to disrespect other people, which will be damaging to her social adaptation and interactions. Even terms that may be used in jest or as a form of teasing can leave wounds that are a challenge to heal," adds Wendy.
• "Why can't you be more like your sister?"
• "Look how good Mark is at Maths; why can't you be as good as he is?"
• "You're lazy, just like your father!"
We all have certain talents and skills, whereas we may find other things more challenging. "Although your child's talent may not be what you wanted for her, it's vital that you still acknowledge her for what she excels at and enjoys," advises Wendy. "When a child is compared to other children, or even her own siblings, she'll experience a sense of failure and inadequacy. These feelings often continue into adulthood and create issues around identity and self-acceptance."
According to Wendy, children can be affected by the things their parents say in the following ways:
• The formation of their values and morals
• What they believe about themselves and others
• The language they use
• Their perspective of other ethnic or religious groups and the opposite sex
• The way in which they treat other people
• Their attitude towards school, extra-mural activities, and later on in life, the career they choose
What you should say to your child
The good news is that words not only have the power to hurt us, they also have the ability to build our confidence, influence us positively, and rectify past hurts. When you chat to your little ones, remember to be:
• "What a beautiful picture you just drew – you used lovely bright colours."
• "Well done! You did such a good job!"
• "The food tastes wonderful! Thank you for your help in the kitchen."
No one knows your child better than you do. Use this intimate knowledge to praise your little one for her own special talents, and she'll flourish.
• "You're helping me so much in the kitchen! Let's try keeping all the flour in the bowl; otherwise we won't have enough to make our cookies."
• "I know you're struggling to tie your shoelaces now, but if you keep practising, you'll get it right."
• "Maybe you find Maths a bit more difficult than Mark does, but you can always improve if you keep trying. You have your own talents and things that you find easier to do."
Build your children's confidence by providing them with support and helping them to acquire the skills they lack. "If you make your child feel as if you're her biggest fan, it will provide her with a foundation on which to build a successful life," says Wendy.
Sometimes, especially if your child is feeling particularly low, you may need to create situations which will provide you with opportunities to be complimentary and constructive. For example, if your child is a budding Picasso, set out the art supplies and ask her to paint a picture for you. If she enjoys cooking, let her help you every now and then. Compliment her on the things she does correctly.
"Consistency is the key to creating a lasting effect on your child's self-worth," says Wendy. "There's no age at which constructive words become less important or influential." Even using the "silent treatment" to punish your child can be just as destructive as hurtful words.
Oops … I said it again.
We all make mistakes. If you've said something to your child that you later regret, don't panic. In fact, the way in which you handle this situation can teach your child about the correct way to handle difficult situations, and that even parents make mistakes and need to ask for forgiveness.
Wendy advises that if you need to apologise to your child, the discussion should go something like this:
• Tell your child that you want to apologise to her. Say: "Sarah, Mom wants to apologise to you for what I said earlier."
• Explain why you need to apologise. Tell her that you said something inaccurate, unfair or unkind and ask your child how your comment made her feel.
• Say: "I should never have said you were being stupid – that was wrong and unkind, and I'm sorry if I made you feel sad."
• Although it shouldn't be used as an excuse, it may help to explain to her why you said what you said, for example: "I was tired and stressed after a long day, and I snapped at you unfairly."
• Rectify your words by correcting your statement. Say: "What I said wasn't true – you're not at all stupid; you're very clever, and I'm proud of you."
• Don't be afraid to ask for forgiveness.
"In order to give your child the best hope of positive and healthy beliefs about herself and her capabilities, choose your words with great consideration," Wendy maintains. Remember, your little chatterbox will quite literally take the words right out of your mouth and make them her own, so remember to be complimentary and constructive, and she'll blossom.