I recently asked my Facebook friends for their favorite quotes about parenthood, one of which really grabbed my attention: “Be careful how you speak to your children; one day it will become their inner voice” (Peggy O’Mara).
Jewish tradition is very clear about the importance of wise, compassionate speech. Some of us may have heard of the prohibition against lashon hara, which tends to be commonly translated as “gossip.” However, the phrase sh’mirat ha’lashon, or “guarding the tongue,” may offer additional guidance to parents trying to figure out the most empathic and effective ways to speak with, and to, their children.
In his book, “Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar,” Alan Morinis notes that “like any powerful resource, speech can be both creative and healing and dangerous and destructive.” This is no more true than in our interactions with our children; as the quote above reminds us, our words really do become a central fixture in our children’s interior landscape, for better or for worse.
Knowing what to say and when and how to say it isn’t easy, but there are three general guidelines we can follow that might help. All three of them call upon us to be mindful as we respond to our children.
The first one comes from the Mussar tradition, and it encourages us to focus on the impact of our words, whether or not they are true. The reality is that kids can be annoying and exhausting and confusing and even infuriating, and we parents need to acknowledge that from time to time—just not to our children. (Now, I realize that I may be indirectly encouraging you to commit lashon hara by venting about your kids to your friends, but I do believe that the mental health benefits of getting some support and realizing you aren’t alone are well worth it.) The point here is that while we may know that we love our children unconditionally, and we may know that their annoying behavior is more of a state than a trait (hopefully!), they don’t know that.
The second guideline has to do with how we praise our children. Some pretty amazing social science research has led to the distinction between fixed-mindset praise and growth-mindset praise. Let me give you an example: my daughter loves to draw. She draws something almost every day, and every time she finishes a new picture, she shows it to me. I have a few different choices as to how I can respond to her latest work of art: I can tell her it’s a beautiful picture, I can make some observations about it (“Look, you drew Mommy with three arms and two noses!”), or I can talk about how hard she worked (or didn’t). In the first case, my focus on the outcome, or the quality of her work, could lead my daughter to evaluate her own abilities solely on whether or not she was successful. If that becomes a stable pattern over time, she may become so concerned about whether or not she’s going to get it right (whatever it is), that she might become unwilling to try new things if they seem too hard.
Alternately, when we use our words to encourage our children’s effort and interests rather than the outcome, we are letting them know that there is value in trying something new and working hard, even if they don’t win or succeed or get an A. That’s growth-mindset praise.
Finally, we can learn to manage our tempers and the words we use when we’re angry. It’s not always easy to “guard our tongues” when our children clearly haven’t been guarding theirs (or their bodies!), but that’s when we need to remember that, like it or not, we are the adults, the ones with fully developed brains and the ability to predict the impact of our actions and our words. So, whether we need to give ourselves a time out or get in the habit of taking several deep breaths, the point is that it’s our job to figure out what we need to do so we can not only model appropriate speech for our children, but also so we don’t end up saying something that will end up becoming a problematic part of their inner voice.