I strongly believe that the words we use have a big impact on the way we view the world and how we feel. I think it makes a difference when we speak accurately instead of using what I call exaggeration words. Exaggeration words like never, always, forever, all over, and hate are rarely true. We use them when tensions are high or when we are frustrated and want to make our point more forcefully, but they distort the situation and often make it worse. If we take a moment to calm down and contemplate what we’re really feeling, we can find more accurate and productive ways of expressing ourselves.
Children seem to come pre-programmed to use exaggeration words and phrases. I’m sure you’ve heard some of the following:
“We never get to go there!”
“I hate her!”
“She’s always bugging me!”
“This will take forever!”
Even though children use these phrases naturally, parents can teach them how to express themselves more appropriately. One way to do that is by modeling the correct behavior yourself. Have you ever found your child walking in the house with muddy shoes and said something like, “You’ve got mud all over!” or “This will take forever to clean up!” If you change those statements to, “You’ve tracked mud on the carpet,” and “It will take me a long time to clean it up,” you will feel calmer, and your children will learn a better way to express themselves. It takes practice and self control, but it will be worth it. In addition, your child will respond better because he will feel that you are being honest and accurate. A child is like any other person – when he hears someone exaggerate he tends to tune them out. When people exaggerate, others around them roll their eyes and think, “Why are they getting so upset?” Your children will listen and respond better when you speak in measured words and tones. Start to notice how you speak to your children, especially in frustrating situations, and see if you can find ways to eliminate exaggeration words and phrases and replace them with accurate statements.
Many exaggeration statements are negative and demeaning to children. It may be tempting to say, “You never listen!” or “Why are you always making messes?” But these types of statements are not true for any child. Every child, every person, listens sometimes and sometimes doesn’t; makes messes sometimes and sometimes doesn’t. If you are concerned about your child’s problem with these behaviors, you can talk to them about it in a more direct, encouraging way, such as, “I want you to listen when mommy talks to you.” You should try to find times when he does listen and positively reinforce that.
We’ve all said these types of things in anger and frustration, and it’s okay if it happens occasionally. But you should make efforts to get in the habit of controlling what you say and speaking positively and accurately. Refer to the post Practice Patience for tips on how to stay calm.
When your children use exaggeration phrases, you can teach them that speaking like that is not factual. For example, if one of my daughters said about a friend, “She’s always so mean!” I would NOT respond by saying, “No, she’s not” or “Don’t say that.” Those responses shut down communication, don’t really get to the bottom of what is going on, and don’t teach the child about accurate speech. I would say, “Sometimes she is mean, sometimes she isn’t. What happened that made you say that?” This reply, “sometimes _____ and sometimes _____” is very useful for conveying the nuanced reality of the world. Life is complicated, and things are rarely black and white. It takes a long time for children to recognize this, but this type of response helps them begin to understand it. To the declaration, “She never shares!” I would say, “Sometimes she does, and sometimes she doesn’t. How can we solve this problem right now.” Focus your child on the current problem and possible solutions, and steer him away from making general statements about a person or state of affairs. Kids will often say, “I hate you!” to a sibling or parent. In this case, I would remind them of the rule of not saying hate with a simple, “We don’t say hate” and then explain, “Sometimes you like me (or her), sometimes you don’t, and that’s okay. But you need to be respectful when you speak to me.” You’re not criticizing the feeling. Feelings come naturally and can’t always be controlled. But words and actions can (and should) be controlled. You’re teaching the child that no matter what he is feeling, he still needs to speak respectfully, which is a valuable lesson. You should be modeling this behavior as much as possible.
A corollary to this is the inevitable time when your child says, “I hate myself.” Most parents will respond with strong emotion, saying, “Don’t ever say that! You’re wonderful!” But again, that conveys that he shouldn’t communicate how he feels, and it closes off the discussion from further enlightenment. The better way is to first remind the child of the general rule (without a lot of emotion): “We don’t say hate.” That rule applies in any situation. Then follow up with, “What is going on that makes you say that?” Ask an open-ended question that allows the child to express his feelings and have a conversation with you about what is going on in his life.
When my children say something like, “You never let me stay up!” they know I will respond with, “That’s an exaggeration word.” Sometimes I try to get them to restate the phrase, and I will help them if necessary. For instance, “Why don’t you try, ‘Mom, I want to stay up, and I feel like I haven’t gotten to for quite a while. Can I, please?’” I try to remind them that they can tell me how they feel and ask for what they want. They can say, “I feel angry,” or “I feel frustrated.” (I literally say this to them, giving them the exact words to use to express themselves). But they can’t speak unkindly or disrespectfully, and exaggeration words often fall under those categories.
Sometimes parents use exaggeration words when they compliment their children. Specific compliments are more powerful and more sincere. Exaggerating compliments are the easy way out. They don’t take much effort, they are vague, and they are often untrue. I’m irritated when I hear parents say, “That is the most beautiful painting I’ve ever seen!” I know this is simply the way some parents express themselves, and they don’t mean to be insincere. But it’s much better to give the painting some thought and attention and point out something specific that you admire, such as, “I like the red in the flowers!” or “It looks like you worked hard on that.” We are in an age where building up children’s self-esteem is highly emphasized. Parents tend to over-compliment. This can actually cause anxiety in children and make them believe that the result is more important that the effort. The adage ‘less is more’ applies here. I’m all for positive reinforcement, but a smile and a simple, accurate kind word can be very powerful. I try to avoid using “the most” or any adjective ending in ‘est’ (cutest, smartest, etc.) when I give praise. Those words ring untrue and don’t sit right. They also focus on comparison: if you were the cutest, that means you were cuter than all the other girls. It’s better to stay away from comparisons by saying, “You looked very cute in your class performance today.”
Hopefully it is clear that there are many reasons to get in the habit of using accurate words and avoiding exaggeration words. Doing so can ease high emotions and give you a greater chance of resolving situations peacefully. It will help you and your children get control of and express difficult feelings. This type of speech helps children begin to understand the complicated world and learn that sometimes you feel one way and sometimes you feel another; sometimes a person is mean and sometimes they are nice. It also allows you to give compliments that motivate and feel sincere rather than provoke anxiety or comparison.