‘All done!’ says my 20 month old as I fasten the last button on her dress. ‘All done?’ she says in a small hopeful voice after the first rinse of her hair in the bath. The speed with which she has grasped concepts like ‘all done’, and the way she daily picks up new words and how to use them in the correct way amazes me. Sometimes she only needs to hear something once and it becomes a new favourite. This absorption of knowledge and words serves as a reminder that the language I use around her and how I talk to her is so important. It can shape so much of her character, who she will become, how she will interact with other people. Communicating with my toddler is a big responsibility indeed!
Often we say things to our children without really thinking about it and with little regard for what message it sends them. We use phrases that we have grown up hearing ourselves, and that we hear other people say to their children on a daily basis. It becomes automatic, an involuntary reflex almost. But these seemingly innocuous expressions can have a deeper impact on our children, who are taking so much more in than we often realise. I occasionally hear myself say certain things and realise that those aren’t necessarily the messages I want to send my daughter, and resolve to take more care and put more thought into how I speak to her.
I’m thinking of phrases like ‘good girl/boy’, which seem innocent enough, but when consistently said every time your child does something, can reinforce certain unhelpful messages. I’ve occasionally found myself saying ‘good girl’ when she does something that I’ve asked her to do, but when I think about it, I don’t want her thinking that she has to do things just to please me, or that I’ll only think of her as ‘good’ if she always does as I tell her. I try saying things like ‘thank you’ now instead. The same goes for when she completes a puzzle, or correctly identifies animals and colours. Consistently telling her how great she is for doing these little things can lead to her expecting such praise all the time, and doing things for the wrong reason, and maybe even fearing getting something wrong or being unable to do something. I want her to enjoy learning and developing for their own sake, to work through things for herself, not because she thinks I expect it of her or because I have ‘trained’ her to do so. Watching her face light up when she completes her shape sorter, rather than being pleased because I’ve told her what a good girl she is for doing it, is far more rewarding for both of us.
That’s not to say that I’ll never tell her I think she’s done something well and worthy of praise, or that I appreciate what she has done – of course I will, but I’d like to help her develop her own sense of appreciation for her achievements too, and a joy in just playing and learning along the way – I hope this will be a healthy motivation for doing things.
Another important feature of language is manners, specifically the words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. We all want polite and well-mannered children, but I think of it as something that has to be learned rather than taught. How many of us have given a child a gift, only for their parents to tarnish their joy by forcing them to say thank you. When forced, it is always said begrudgingly rather than meaningfully. Surely we would much rather our child said it out of genuine appreciation and with understanding of the concept of gratitude rather than because they’ve been made to say it. And how much nicer it is to be on the receiving end of meaningful thanks.
Children learn through observation and experience, through listening to their parents and watching how they interact. I don’t want it to be any different for my daughter when it comes to manners. I’ve never forced her to say other words, so have decided not to do the same with please and thank you. We make sure to say please and thank you around her, and when interacting with her too, so that she eventually understands the concept for herself and will use the words when she is ready to and comprehends what she is saying. I’m sure that along the way a lot of people will think she is rude, that we’re irresponsible parents, but hopefully after learning from us she will be happy to express these sentiments herself one day.
We’re still early on in our parenting journey, and every day is a learning experience for us as parents as well as for our daughter. Watching how she learns and picks things up has been a real education for me and has made me realise that I need to put thought into things that are so often just automatic. Of course we’ll make plenty of mistakes along the way, but so much of what we do goes into shaping this little human being, and communicating with her in a positive and respectful way is a good place to start.