In this age of ‘Google parenting,’ answers to most queries are available online, resulting in the notion of ‘perfect parenting’ and a lot more parental guilt than the pre-internet era. However, there is one evidence-based intervention, available free of cost and easy to implement, that does not come up in the top ten search results: it’s called parenting language. This intervention is an extremely powerful one: influencing self-esteem, behaviour, learning and relationships.
Why is it, then, important to consider something as simple or primitive as language, leaving behind the more ‘visible’ aspects of parenting such as quality time, discipline, health, education or playtime? Language is often the most observable form of connection with children. It embodies parental mindset and beliefs, whether fixed or growth, about the world and their child. Children, in their innocence and purity, mirror a lot of the language portrayed by parents, teachers, peers or popular media. In addition, the hidden messages beneath language such as telling them “You will never be able to do this” are also easily picked out and absorbed by the young ones, eventually contributing to their self-talk.
Here are some aspects of language to be mindful of:
- The first and simplest way to set off on the positive parenting language train is to notice your interactions with your child: the precise words that you use. Note any ten consecutive statements that you say to your child. Consider: is your language in alignment with the message you want to send to your child, or is there a disconnect (dissonance) between the two?
- Recognize the tendency of the human brain to focus on the unpleasant, negative narrative. For instance, a pupil will probably remember the one negative comment mentioned by their teacher, as opposed to all the positive praise and feedback. Counteract this negative bias by using the 5:1 praise to criticism ratio, where each negative comment is counterbalanced by five positive ones, to maintain relationships, improve behaviour and self-esteem.
- Avoid absolutes and extremes in your conversation when possible: “never,” “must,” or conditional praise: “you are a good boy/girl if you do…” These put a lot of pressure on your child and are not reflective of how praise or efforts work in adult life!
- Praise or reward your child’s effort, persistence, hard work and progress, rather than objective scores, talents or intelligence. We want to transmit the message that abilities can be developed and are not fixed.
- Reframe negative into positive narratives: those of yourself and your child. For instance, instead of using labels such as “attention-seeking,” or “stubborn,” use descriptions such as, “connection-seeking,” and “assertive.” This psychological technique is extremely useful in bringing about a shift in thinking about the child.
- Spend some time tuning into your child’s strengths. Often we tend to brush over the positives and take them for granted to focus on what didn’t go well or could be better. Ask curious questions to reflect on their shining moments — what made things special, what did they do well, what did they enjoy? Catch yourself doing the opposite. Remember, “where attention goes, energy flows.”
- Positive parenting is not about ignoring a problem, rather using a growth mindset to consider, “what now?”
- I often hear that teens seem to be more difficult to communicate with: they are in a constant fight or flight state due to physiological changes. Language makes or breaks a sense of control or independence for them. A simple, yet effective tip is to offer choices, whether it is for a reward or consequence, resulting in a greater likelihood of compliance! For instance, “It was great that you wore your mask all day at school today, thank you — would you like to have some game time for 15 minutes or go out cycling?” or, “We don’t allow that at home, would you like to write an apology letter or go say sorry?”
- Avoid criticizing the language of others such as your partner — one adult using positive language is enough to promote resilience in a child.
For some parents, the shift in language may not come as easy — this is because a change in associated mindset or beliefs may take some time or even feel a little uncomfortable. Rest assured, this is completely OK and a part of the parenting process.
The intention behind this article is to promote a shift to gentle and positive parenting language through being mindful and rephrasing dialogue, rather than inducing parental guilt. This is not a do’s and don’ts piece. Please do not use its contents to categorize yourself or others as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ parents.
Dr. Diksha Laungani is a Dubai-based Educational Psychologist at The Psychology Center at the Carbone Clinic and an Adjunct Lecturer at Middlesex University Dubai. She is passionate about promoting pupils’ self-determination and supporting parent/educator well-being and development through consultation and training.