The Power of Words
We have often heard the adage “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Why has this phrase stood the test of time? Because it captures a vital truth: words have meaning and power. They can be harmful or helpful. As parents modeling good practices for our children, we want to make it our goal to share a kind word and speak words of encouragement and positivity to others.
Why Words Matter
Words can harm and words can heal. For example, let’s think about two different ways to respond to your child if s/he spills something at the dinner table. You could say, “You’re so clumsy, why do you always mess up dinner?” or you could say, “Can you help me clean this up? Maybe next time you can be a little more careful.” In the first case, the child is put on the spot, is made to feel bad, and could start engaging in negative self-talk. S/he starts to think of him or herself as always being clumsy and disruptive. In the second example, the child takes some responsibility for the mistake by helping to clean up and with your gentle reminder, will try to be more careful next time. These words give the child agency and a chance to do a better job in the future, but don’t trap him/her in an unproductive cycle.
Neuroscientists have studied the impact of negative words on brain function and have discovered that hearing negative words increases stress and long-term anxiety. The words could be spoken, heard, or thought. This means that not only hearing negative words from others, but saying negative words to ourselves and others increases stress and anxiety in the short and long term.
In contrast, positive words have an impact on the frontal lobe of the brain which influences other areas of the brain. The frontal lobe is responsible for decision making processes and higher-level functions like planning and organizing. Sustained positive thoughts impact the parietal lobe in a way that we can change the way we perceive ourselves and others.
A How To Guide
So where do we start if we want to teach our kids about kind words? When we are intentional about what we say, our words have even more power. Once we realize the impact of our words, we can teach our children about how to talk to others in positive ways. It is a powerful act to intentionally look for people who need a kind word and then offer something positive to say.
Saying something kind is not just a bland exercise in randomly being “nice” (pro tip: we should always act nice) or tossing off a comment without much thought. Ask your child to find someone in need and take the time to engage with that person, look them in the eyes, and be intentional about finding a truly kind thing to say. This skill may not come naturally, so to ensure the best chance of success, prepare ahead of time.
First, you can help your child notice what it means to be in need. Maybe s/he is not aware of ways to read other people. S/he might need some guidance in looking for clues of what makes a person be “in need.” Perhaps it’s a cashier who is looking harried, or mom when she comes home from work and slumps into a chair, or maybe it’s an older neighbor who is struggling to wrangle his dog. Help your child be attuned to those clues so they can more easily spot someone who could use a kind word.
Second, help your child be intentional about what s/he is going to say. Do some “training” before you head out into the world for this task. Brainstorm ideas of what people might like or need to hear. Practice with each other to see how it feels for your child to speak a kind word and see how it feels for him/her to receive a kind word from you. It can be a simple compliment like “I like your shirt” or if the child knows the person better, it could be an acknowledgement of how that person is helping out like, “Dad, you’re working really hard at work.” It could be simply thanking someone in an extra special way. Everyone likes to be recognized for what they’re doing for other people.
Once you practice what to say, focus on what it means to be intentional when speaking the kind words. Body language, especially making good eye contact, is crucial. This is a skill that is useful in all areas of life so it’s great to have your child start working on it now. It may be uncomfortable, though, especially if s/he wants to say something nice to an adult. Often our kids are told to be quiet and behave which means they don’t have a lot of opportunities to initiate positive interactions with adults. Again, practicing ahead of time is the key to success.
Now it’s time to go out and do what you’ve learned at home. Your child may initiate an interaction on his or her own or s/he may need a little guidance. Either way, talk to a neighbor, the mailman, or a waitress. Share some kindness and see what happens.
Integrating What You’ve Learned
After your child has practiced saying some kind words and gone out in the world to share those words, follow up with a conversation. How did the interaction go? What worked about it? What didn’t work about it? What would your child like to change or try for next time? How did s/he feel about doing it (happy, uncomfortable, awkward, excited)? There are no wrong answers in the conversation. Remember you’re modeling sharing kind words with your child as well. Let this be a time for you to spend developing this skill between the two of you. Not everyone is a born extrovert who can easily walk up to people and say something nice. At the same point, it is a valuable skill to intentionally affirm someone else and will help your child develop and maintain healthy relationships.
HAPPÉ Life offers free, fun missions for kids to practice these crucial interpersonal and self-awareness skills. The missions are short videos that introduce concepts like lifting others up and offering a kind word. To sign up, click here: https://happe.life/mission-im-possible/