A few years ago, I held my youngest son's hand as we walked across a busy parking lot. My older two boys trailed behind whining for ice cream. Such a request was not unheard of, but I didn't handle this situation well and yelled at them.
My three boys blinked up at me. The look on their faces stabbed my heart. In that moment, I realized I too easily defaulted to hurtful words when I was frustrated.
Have you ever heard yourself say something you promised you wouldn't say to your children — shaming words such as, "What were you thinking?" or "When will you ever learn"? The Bible says, "There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing" (Proverbs 12:18). My hasty words often left wounds, like those of a sword. I could see this in my children's dejected expressions.
A new way to respond
Here are a few examples of phrases parents can say that bring healing instead of injury.
Instead of: "Don't take that tone of voice with me, young lady. Go to your room until you can change your attitude!"
Say: "Claire, I love you. Because I love you, I won't allow you to speak rudely. That tone won't go well for you in life, and it displeases God. Please try saying that again with kindness and respect. I'm listening" (1 Corinthians 13:4-5).
Instead of: "Be quiet! I can't hear myself think!"
Say: "Boys, I need everyone to follow my lead. See how softly I'm speaking right now? I'm sure you don't realize it because you are having so much fun, but your voices are getting a bit too loud for me. I'd like you to speak no louder than I am right now. If you need to be noisier, that's OK, but you will need to play outside or go to your bedroom. Thank you!"
Instead of: "If you kids can't get along then you can just go to your rooms. I'm so tired of all the fighting!"
Say: "I know that you're struggling right now. I want to help. Is this something you can discuss in normal voices and be good listeners, or do you need me to listen and help you work through it?" (2 Timothy 2:23-25).
Instead of: "Why can't you ever clean your room or do your homework on time?" Or, "You always mess this up or make us late!"
Say: "Son, we need to work on this area of behavior. I feel a little stuck right now on how to help you, so let's take a few minutes apart to think and pray about it. Then, I'd like to hear two good ideas from you about how you can improve and how I can help you. I'll have two good ideas to share with you as well. When we both get frustrated, it doesn't help, so let's ask God to give us wisdom and help us problem-solve" (James 1:5).
A Holy Pause
Our tone of voice and body language will reveal how we really feel when we talk to our kids. Take a "holy pause" before you address your child's misbehavior so that your own words and actions are not rude or inappropriate. Remember that you don't have to match their bad behavior with your own. We get to demonstrate the way we want our kids to treat us by first modeling it for them.
One thing I have found to be true is that I can't parent rightly if I'm empty spiritually. Part of planning the right words to say to my children means planning my own time with the Lord each day so that I'm filled with the fruit of the Spirit, living out the traits of love, joy, kindness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
When those hard parenting moments come, and they will, what comes out of our mouths will be evidence of whether or not we are in tune with the Lord and His heart for our kids. Planning the right things to say when my children frustrate me is time well spent, and the benefits go far beyond the moment to building a parent-child relationship with no regrets.
Amber Lia is the co-author of Parenting Scripts: When what you're saying isn't working, say something new.