Traditional Sayings Used With Children & Why To Avoid Them
While we try our best to be careful about the way we communicate with children, there are a number phrases frequently used that can feel confusing or leave children starving for context. Phrases like “Use your words!”, “You need to share!”, and trickiest of all, “Good job!!”, have incredible intention but also some interesting subliminal messaging. I want to stir the pot a bit and explain my reasoning for suggesting the avoidance of some of the most common phrases used with children.
“Use your words!”
This phrase is typically used when children are upset or extremely active. Perhaps a child is trying to communicate something, either non-verbally or amidst excessive emotion, and an adult replies with “Use your words!”. I believe it’s used with the hope that this request will encourage children to speak their needs. Saying to children, “Use your words!”, may help if you have processed consistently what it means when you say this, or if they know to ask for help when they cannot form the words on their own. However, often times children do not have the words yet and they actually need help finding them. Young children are extremely capable, but they are still learning how to communicate their needs, identify their emotions and simultaneously put those together to solve problems, seek desired outcomes and/or accomplish tasks.
Instead of saying “Use your words”, you can offer words to use. If they are feeling upset, they can repeat “I am frustrated”(or say nothing until they calm down then model what they can say and do next time). If you know the reason for their feelings, you can help give them the words to use to explain the reason. If they need something, they can repeat a statement or question to get that need met. It is also helpful to get ahead of this stage of development by using reflective speaking. You can tell children what you see them doing, talk to them about the feelings you see them expressing, and model question asking (when you want a drink you can say, “Can I have a drink?”).
“You need to share"!”
Our society loves to encourage sharing. It is a beautiful intent, but often the execution comes out as a demand. As adults, we would be really frustrated if someone came up to us, took our cell phone, and said, “You have to share!” Typically there is an exchange that occurs when we want or need something that someone else is using—we ask. For children, their incredible desire to use that one specific lego man feels like a need, and so does keeping that lego man to themselves because ‘it is the perfect warrior’ to protect the very sophisticated pirate ship they are constructing.
When we force children to share, there are several pitfalls we can easily overlook.
If they are fighting to keep something, there is probably a reason or intention. We devalue their play when we force them to give up something that is deemed extremely valuable to their work.
Forcing them to share, especially if this comes with threats or consequences, changes their reasoning to share. Our hope is that they learn to share because it is a form of character we want them to develop. We want to guide them into turn taking. Children desire a measure of control, especially in their play. Help them decide when and how they share so that it does in fact develop their character, as it will then be their choice to share.
We are ineffectively preparing them for their adult life when we paint sharing as something that is necessary and certain. Children begin to form a world view around sharing that is inappropriate to how sharing works (ex: they get really upset when they take a toy from someone thinking it’s their turn because “we have to share” and it’s not their turn yet)
Instead of telling children to share and pressing for follow through in the moment, practice conversation about sharing. When a toy is taken by a sibling, walk each sibling through a back and forth conversation about sharing. The children can repeat you to practice asking and answering about taking turns.
Examples: “Can I have a turn?” / “Right now I am using this, but you can have a turn when I’m finished”/ “Can I play with you?” / “I want to use this alone, but thank you for asking” / “I want to use the red legos” / “There are enough red legos for both of us to use, let’s make piles”
Often children need assistance in understanding what “being finished” means. This may be a continued conversation.
There are also situations where some direct adult guidance is necessary. It can help for an adult to point out that there is enough material for more than one child or to provide some appropriate time limits when an agreement seems unlikely. I would recommend using events as a gauge for time (after dinner, ____ is going to use the ____) because you want children to have enough time and to feel like they have some control over their work and its completeness. I would also recommend stepping in to offer ideas for substitution when they exist (what about using the green lego man until ______ is finished with the red one) .
When we use “Great Job/Good Job!” as a response to children on a consistent basis, we teach them to rely on our approval, adult approval, to feel good about what they do or what they create. “Great job!” has to be the hardest phrase to lock up and refrain from using.
It took years of intentionality to change this default response. I used it often to react to children doing something they were asked to, accomplishing a task, doing something they feel proud of, or that I feel proud of!
As an adult, I catch myself longing for this phrase to be said to me too. Sometimes I crave approval, acceptance, and encouragement from others to feel good about what I am doing. Ideally, I want to feel good about life because I feel good about it, and not because someone else does. We can teach children to think this way too by training them in self-awareness and confidence. We can take this short phrase of approval and turn it into a reflective, encouraging conversation.
When we use“Good Job!”, we often say it in the context of encouragement or pride. It can be an automated response because we are just so darn excited. When choosing to shift away from this phrase, tone of voice is a huge factor. You can use the same “Good Job!” tone with other phrases and questions. You can talk about what you see or what they did. Ex: “You drew a circle there!” “Look at that shade of pink. Tell me how you made that?!” You can ask children to tell you about their work, to show you what they did and what they like about it. You can discuss what they do or create as if it is a process and not a product.
These conversations also set up opportunities to discuss problem solving, constructive criticism, or aspects of their work that they do not like. You can guide children in how to fix, change, or redeem whatever it is they feel they want to change or fix. If they did not do something you asked them to, you can talk about how they could do it differently next time and how they would feel as a result of that change.
There is a chance that you read this and thought I was way too out of the box. These examples and reflections are coming from years of my own experience, as well as respected professors and researchers in the field of early childhood education. The more context and conversation you can engage in with young children, the better. You are preparing children to become mature members of society, so giving them all the tools they need takes time, effort and A LOT of conversation.