09/08/2015 10:51 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Being Mindful of What Children Hear You Say


When was the last time you heard someone say, No one ever listens to me! I want people to care about what I say! Apparently, those people don't have little children around, because kids listen to every word that comes out of the mouths around them. Especially the things we'd prefer they not overhear.

Over this summer I had the pleasure, and maybe the honor, of spending time with all seven of my grandchildren, and it was easy to see exactly how they have picked up communication styles from their parents. (If the parents of those grandchildren are reading, this is a compliment!) The most extraordinary conversation came from a three year old, an obviously well-loved three year old.

He heard me say that my shoulders and neck were stiff (Obviously, I am not a three year old!). He promptly got out his doctor kit and proceeded with some of the following:

I'm going to help you feel better... you need to calm down your body... take deep breaths in and out...that's right; in and out... slowly...I love you, and I'm going to take care of you.

Beautiful? Without a doubt. But listening to him also took me back to my time in the school system, and how children often repeated what they heard from the adults around them. Sometimes it was easy to see that they were well-loved and had been listening to kind, caring, and respectful communication. And, sometimes, whether they were well-loved or not, it was easy to decipher what the topics of dinner conversations had been, and when the adults in their world had been less mindful about their words.

Comments about teachers, school policies, or other children and their families were repeated, as well as remarks about religious groups or minority groups. Sometimes the comments were positive, but sometimes they weren't.

Each year, whether as a teacher or principal, I tried to remember to repeat a well-known teacher announcement at the Back-to-School evening: I'll only believe half of what they tell me about you if you'll only believe half of what they tell you about me. Sometimes this worked, and sometimes it didn't; still, it would always be wise to keep basic guidelines in mind when communicating with or around your children.

  • Comment on their positives, but do it honestly. Children can recognize a fake compliment a mile away. There's no need to tell a child who just lost the tennis match that he's the best player in the league. Instead, ask what he felt went well, what he feels can improve, or just how he felt about the situation, whether a sport, a test, or any other learning opportunity.
  • Avoid negative comments about people or groups of people. There's no need to mention things or make statements that tear others down; instead, focus on how your child might think about responding when something happens. Impress upon him that he has no control over what others say or do, but only how he responds.
  • Discuss the characteristics he looks for in a friend, and use that as a springboard for the characteristics he might want to work toward, himself. Loyalty, integrity, or dependability are great traits with which to begin.

Remember to speak with care in front of your children; you can be both their best, or worst, role model. If you do your best to speak with honesty, kindness, and consideration, you will have children who are more likely to do the same.

Have a good, and mindful, school year.

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