Often the way we talk to our kids is reflective of how our parents communicated with us as children. Our choice of words may be just how our parents talked to us or it may be an effort to find something different. In either case, it is worth taking the time to listen to ourselves and the messages we convey to our little darlings. Some words at first glance seem conducive to getting the message across, when in reality, depending on your child, they may take the message to a different meaning altogether.
I have put together a few examples by which I think you will get an idea of how our words can be misleading to our kids.
My first example is one I heard often as parents would drop their children off for class. They would leave saying, "Now be a good boy/girl." or "Work hard." Initially this sounds encouraging, yet when we take a bit further, some children will see it as a judgment. The children may wonder if their parents think that they are bad or wouldn't do their best and so now they have to either agree with their parents and be the "bad" child or the one who doesn't try or they have to do all they can to prove that they aren't "bad" or "lazy". This may carry into their adult years. I know plenty of people who are spending a lot of energy trying to prove how good they are to others when they don't really believe they are themselves. I wonder what would be different if instead the parents said something like, "Enjoy your time," or "I'll see you after class." Notice there doesn't need to be any judgment or threat implied. Most children don't set out to be bad or to be less than, unless they have gotten it into their belief system that this is how they define themselves because someone else defined it for them.
Another use of words I hear from parents is, "I need you to ..." as a way of getting children to do what the parents want. I get the purpose of 'I" statements when used correctly but to use them to get your children to do what you want, may not be the best use of the words. And there may be another way that would actually empower your child to choose to do for you what you want that doesn't promote the "need" aspect. When someone does something for you because you NEED it, they begin to live their life serving your needs and lose connection to what their needs are. Learning to ask questions of your children invites them to help out and allows them to feel like a team member rather than someone dictated over. This will empower your children to also learn how to use questions to empower others to be team members in their adult life. An example might be, instead of "I need you to clean up your room," a parent may offer, that it is time to do some house cleaning. "Here are the areas that we will clean today. What room would you like to clean?" or you may just ask, "Would you help me out by cleaning your room?" or even "How much fun can we have today cleaning the house?" You may offer that if you are left to clean their room you may end up throwing some things out or putting things where they won't know where they are. Be willing to allow them to choose. The key is to avoid projecting guilt. A parent may even ask their child what a clean room is to them. I have found that asking kids what they think about things gives great insight and awareness that they just don't see things as we do and they don't feel judged about having a messy room. I wonder if parents could take a lesson or two from what their kids know.
An added note on using the word NEED. We can be empowered when we let others know our true needs in the way that we take care of ourselves. For instance, letting my child know that I need some time alone before I can focus on what he needs is an empowering statement modeling for kids that parents have a priority at times to take care of their needs before they can even begin to care for others. It might be worded in such a way as to let the child know that you are not dismissing them, but rather you are fueling up so you can be more present. You can begin to see the difference between presenting this as, "I need you to go to your room so I can have some time alone." and "I am looking forward to hearing what you have to say and I can do that best after I have some time alone to get re-energized." OR even, "I really need a bath right now, I wonder if you would mind telling me all about your day after that." Keeping the need about you and not about them, will work in both your favors. One test you can always use to determine if you are misusing NEED, is to place yourself on the receiving end of it. How would you respond if you were told- I need you to ...? You may do it, but are you more apt to do it willingly if it is presented as a choice, "Would you be able to help me...?" I am sure you will come up with some other options yourself that will work even better.
My last example is often when we are tired, frustrated, or busy and our kids want to tell us something, want our attention, and as kids will do persist until we fly off the handle and yell at them to "SHUT UP!" or some such message. Practicing some other alternatives will give parents a go to when such times come up. "I can see you are excited to tell me all about this and I would like to listen when I have the energy, can we talk after I finish this task?" May be an alternative. Let them know you are interested, and you want to give them what they are asking for so they know you acknowledge their desire and be sure to come back to them.
These are just a few examples. Listening to parents interact with their children in public places- grocery stores, restaurants and playgrounds will give further examples where we can pretend to be on the receiving end of statements. We can then reflect on how we might convey the message differently. And you may even pick up one that you like and would like to use. I do enjoy hearing parents who are working at using words that empower their children and I learn from them too.
In the end, it is best to have an idea of what it means to be a parent. If being a parent to you is to create a need for your child to need you as you need them, you very well may want to continue with controlling statements that will keep them in judgment of themselves and you. Be aware this may backfire as some children respond to this as being more rebellious. If being a parent to you is about guiding and supporting your child to discover their own talents, gifts and differences and to empower them to BE all they can be in this world, check and see if the words you use send that message.
It is helpful hearing other ideas that parents have that I can share in my groups. If you have an empowering statement that you use, please share it in the comments below.