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Words That Make Children Strong

Recently while I was sharing with a group of parents at a seminar, I asked the parents if they felt being a parent has one title of ‘parent’ but includes many roles rolled into this one? The group laughed and nodded in agreement. I asked them if as a parent they also sometimes played the role of a teacher... doctor… and counselor for their children and they said all replied ‘Yes.’

Recently while I was sharing with a group of parents at a seminar, I asked the parents if they felt being a parent has one title of ‘parent’ but includes many roles rolled into this one? The group laughed and nodded in agreement. I asked them if as a parent they also sometimes played the role of a teacher... doctor… and counselor for their children and they said all replied ‘Yes.’


Then I asked them how long students spend studying for these three professions? We totaled up the years of training and it came to about 13 years. Then I asked the parents how long they had spent studying to be a parent! Everyone agreed that they had not studied at all and simply, ‘learned on the job!’


Parents frequently describe parenting as simultaneously the most amazing role and the most challenging role they play in their lifetimes. As parents are ‘learning on the job’ one highly important thing to learn is the power of our words and the messages they cement in the minds of their children.


The following true story is one of my favorite illustrative examples of the power of language and is regularly related by a highly successful scientist and popular speaker: “One particularly interesting event occurred when I was eight. As a kid, I was always climbing trees, poles, and literally hanging around upside down from the rafter of our lake house. So, it came to no surprise for my dad to find me at the top of a 30-foot tree swinging back and forth. My little eight-year-old brain didn't realize the tree could break or I could get hurt. I just thought it was fun to be up so high.


My older cousin, Tammy, was also in the same tree. She was hanging on the first big limb, about ten feet below me. Tammy's mother also noticed us at the exact time my dad did. About that time a huge gust of wind came over the tree. I could hear the leaves start to rattle and the tree begin to sway. I remember my dad's voice over the wind yell “Hold on tightly." So I did.

Effective Encouragement, enables children to focus on a positive aim, whereas ineffective encouragement has children hold in the undesired result in their minds.


The next thing I knew, I heard Tammy screaming at the top of her lungs, laying flat on the ground. She had fallen from the tree. I scampered down the tree to safety. Apparently, when Tammy's mother felt the gust of wind, she yelled out, "Tammy, don't fall!" And Tammy did fall.


My dad then explained to me that human mind has a very difficult time processing a negative image. In fact, people who rely on internal pictures cannot see a negative image at all. In order for Tammy to process the command of not falling, her nine-year-old brain had to first imagine falling, then try to tell the brain not to do what it just imagined. Whereas, my eight-year-old brain instantly had an internal image of me hanging on tightly.”


This explanation became the foundation which this little boy used to win a Nobel prize for science along with becoming the previous president of India. This little boy was Abdul Kalam and his father coached him to hold what he wanted to achieve in his mind – never entertaining a negative outcome.


This lesson of the boy in the tree and the message to ‘hold on tight.’ seems very simple and naturally an effective way for parents to teach their children. However in reality on average parents say a lot more negative statements to their children than positive ones. Some researchers have shown that children of two years of age hear on average 14 negative comments to 1 positive comment. Comments such as, ‘Don’t drop the glass.’, ‘Don’t be late.’, ‘Don’t fail.’, ‘Don’t do that.’, ‘Don’t kick your sister.’, are all very common.


Further researchers show that if you wish a child to learn and grown with self confidence they need to hear 17 positive comments to 1 correction. In fact children are hearing the opposite comments of what they need to develop with self esteem.


A torn jacket is soon mended; but hard words bruise the heart of a child. - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow -


This means that along with regularly encouraging our children to focus on failing – instead of what we want them to do – win or pass with are also reducing their self confidence. Last week when I asked a group of 200 engineering students, how often they think about failing, almost all of their hands went up for, ‘Very often.’ Then I asked them how often their parents told them not to fail or that they may fail they again responded, ‘Very often.’ When we say ‘don’t fail.’ to our children, what is it that stays in their minds? FAIL! Then they feel anxious and quite often do not move towards what we what them to.


What should we say instead? If for example we, as adults, would like to stop eating chocolate and lose weight, we could say to ourselves, ‘Don’t eat chocolate.’ Yet, saying this we would hold the image of ‘CHOCOLATE’ in our minds! Or we could be much more effective if we say, ‘ I will eating healthily and become fitter.’ This way we are focusing on what we want for ourselves – our aim.


With our children, instead of, ‘Don’t drop the glass.’, we can be much more effective by saying, ‘ Hold on tight to the glass.’ Instead of, ‘Don’t fail.’, we can say for example, ‘By studying well, you will strengthen your skills in this subject and pass.’ Instead of, ‘Don’t kick your sister.’, ‘You are a kind brother, play gently with your sister.’

Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another. - Napoleon Hill -


Sometimes the messages adults give children through words can be subtle but still have a strong impact. As a 3 and 4 year old I used to love singing around the house. My parents never commented on my singing and left me free to sing. At the age of 5 at school one day, I was singing loudly and confidently in my school class along with the rest of my classmates, and my teacher came by and frowned at me and said, ‘just hum.’


The impact on me was huge and from that day onwards I held my songs in my stomach and refused to let them come out of my mouth. I formed the belief that I could not sing. As a teenager I learned to challenge this belief but not before it had limited my expression on a number of occasions. I do not blame my teacher, she was very kind and I am sure acting with her best intentions.


Thinking back though, if I was standing in her shoes looking at me the little girl just new to school singing with her heart, I would not of said anything to the little girl at that time. Instead I would of made a session in the class for all the students to practice the notes and tones of music so that the whole class would benefit from the session as well as the little girl learning how to sing the correct notes without being shamed in front of the class.


We can learn enormously by spending one day noting down each time we say a positive comment to our children and each time we say a negative comment to our children. If the negative comments are greater than the positive comments, this is an opportunity to practice increasing our positive comments tomorrow and the day after…

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