One day as I walked past the den, I heard my daughter hollering at the computer screen. “Are you kidding me? She is such a liar!”
I stopped to see what had upset my daughter. She showed me her friend’s Facebook page. They’re members of a sports team, and a third member was complaining about their coach. Apparently, there had been a kerfuffle between this girl and the coach, and two teammates were arguing about the situation. Their comments became increasingly sharper, and soon they were in an all-out fight, with a few other teammates weighing in, sometimes with profanity. I couldn’t believe my eyes, how this little dispute escalated into a raging firestorm.
How fitting that the apostle James should use fire as an analogy of how our words can rapidly spread, causing widespread damage (James 3:5-6). And he didn’t even know about the technology that would one day allow our fiery speech to spread even more quickly!
Can the power of words be controlled? Can we teach our kids to train their tongue (and their typing!) so that their words are a force for good? Here are a few ways we can help our kids discipline their speech and communicate in a way that imparts life, love and hope to others.
Strike the right tone
One afternoon, just as I was leaving my son’s middle school after a meeting, I heard a voice behind me: “Excuse me, are you Spencer’s mother?”
I turned to see one of the lunchroom workers. “Yes,” I answered. “Is something wrong?” My heart fretted. I’d just left the vice principal’s office where my son sat busted for pulling a prank. Had he also misbehaved in the lunchroom?
“Oh, nothing is wrong!” she declared. “I wanted to tell you how respectful your son is. He always smiles and thanks me when I hand him his food. He even asks if I’m having a good day! Such a respectful boy!”
Her words thrilled this mama’s heart, of course. It also encouraged me in one of my parenting goals, that my children would engage in every interaction with polite words and a respectful tone.
Tone might be just as important as a child’s words. I tell my kids that I expect them to use the same calm, respectful tone with everyone they encounter, not just with their parents or with those in authority. Everyone — even that combative classmate who never seems to speak respectfully to them.
It’s not an easy expectation to live up to. Others snip and snarl, and our kids must resist the urge to escalate the combative climate. The biblical advice for these situations is usually the most effective: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).
When we give an un-soft answer, we drizzle gasoline on the spark of a potential spat, setting off a big blaze. But when we are intentional about giving soft, gentle answers to foolish, hasty or even downright mean comments, it prevents the situation from escalating into an inferno.
Recognize the value of modeling soft responses to children. There are many things I need to teach my children about the basic tasks and responsibilities of life. Making beds. Doing laundry. Remembering to put their shoes away. But when teaching them these things, do I do it with a soft tone, or do I just open my mouth, spewing out impatience?
One of the most important skills in disciplining our speech is listening. That point is made throughout Scripture. Being a good listener prevents us from responding with foolishness (Proverbs 18:13) or in anger (James 1:19). James instructs us to be “quick to hear, slow to speak.”
Many children operate by a somewhat different principle: “quick to speak, slow to hear.” A big part of parenting is teaching our children how to be better listeners.
I’ve taught my kids to listen not just with their ears, but by focusing with their entire face. Make eye contact. Smile and nod. Focus on the words and try to understand the underlying emotions that the other person is feeling. I challenge my kids to resist jumping in with their own narratives and opinions, and instead focus on mirroring or repeating back what someone has just said. This helps them tune out distractions and become active listeners.
Strive for gracious speech
I’ve always liked the apostle Paul’s instruction to keep our words “seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6). Thinking of words as salt can be a helpful way for children to identify the many situations where their words can be used for good:
Salt enhances flavor. A pinch of salt can coax out all the wonderful flavors around it. The same is true of words. It doesn’t take much, but our selection of words can enhance the pleasant flavors of a conversation, be it through compliments and lighthearted remarks or insightful questions and respectful responses.
Ask your kids to consider how their words influence the overall “taste” of a conversation. Are they adding good, bland or just plain bad flavors? Remind them to strive to echo and contribute to the positive, friendly qualities of others’ speech.
Salt preserves. Your kids no doubt see evidence of a society in decay, how culture moves increasingly further away from God’s loving plan for humanity. This isn’t just in all the immoral media your kids may be exposed to; the decay also is evident in the onslaught of thoughtless or deceptive speech they encounter in person and online.
Encourage your kids to ask themselves, Do my words preserve truth in some way? Truth is needed every day, be it in an honest confession, an insight that clears up a misunderstanding or a gentle word of advice.
Salt melts ice. Children easily recognize a simple truth: People can sometimes be cold. Icy cold. When we speak, do our words help melt the ice or add to the chill?
Remind your kids that if they’re given the cold shoulder, they can try to warm things up by respectfully engaging others with kindness. Practice this principle as a family when you’re out in public or dealing with new people. Words seasoned with salt can melt the iciest of hearts.
Salt was once used to slow infection. Your children will hear gossip and rumors in the halls at school or in online conversations. These painful words spread like an infection.
Help your kids understand that they can choose to halt the spread by either refusing to participate in or speaking up against gossip. If they are brave enough to stand against gossip, words may sting for a moment, but your kids can help stop a nasty infection from spreading.
Salt is best used in small amounts. We may sometimes need to speak truth, but even if words are true and delivered in a kind, warmhearted tone, we rarely need to say everything that’s on our mind.
Remind your kids to keep their words gentle, respectful and brief. Sticking to just a few comments in a difficult conversation increases the chances that our listeners will be responsive to what we say. Too much salt destroys the dish, and it can also ruin a relationship.
We are what we hear
A principle I learned back in the early days of computers was “garbage in, garbage out.” In other words, poor input leads to poor output. I think the same principle applies to our kids’ speech. If they consume a steady diet of cultural “garbage” — harmful social media relationships, or music, movies and books that contradict your family’s values — we can be sure those “inputs” will leak out in what they say. No, we can’t keep our children from every negative influence, but we must always remember how input affects output and set appropriate boundaries.
In our home, this means we seek to provide an environment that contributes to our kids’ ability to communicate with love. Yes, we do monitor media influences and other sources of negative speech. But more important, we aim to model calm, loving responses to life’s challenges.
When bad things happen, I try not to grumble or complain. When normal childhood mishaps occur, I remember that although difficult, it is still easier to remove grape juice stains from carpet than to erase harsh and unloving words hurled at a child whose little fingers have failed her.
And when I fail — when my children have witnessed unkind words, an angry temper, gossip or biting sarcasm — I will confess it as sin and ask for their forgiveness.
I want them to recognize that even when we fail, we can develop the habit of starting again with a clean slate. Every day is an ongoing opportunity to say the right thing.
Karen Ehman is a popular speaker and a New York Times best-selling author. Her latest book is Keep It Shut: What to say, how to say it, and when to say nothing at all.