So I work with kids. I work with people who work with kids. In my free time, I read books about working with kids. I don’t, however, always drink the Kool-Aid. For example…
There are few phrases I find more inherently condescending than “Use your words.” This expression, all too common in English, is intended as a prompt to children to choose prosocial ways to communicate their wants and needs. At the best of times (which is by no means all the time) I think it’s meant to be empowering, a kind of “Go, you!” coaching. Even where the aim is worthy, though, the method makes me wince.
No caregiver enjoys tantrums. Kicking, flailing, screaming, wailing—that’s misery for all concerned, including children themselves. Just as newborns feel safer when swaddled, children are significantly happier when they’re regulated, i.e., in control of themselves.
In community mental health—where so many of the kiddos we see start their lives already burdened with trauma—tantrums can be even scarier, leading to assaults and destruction of property. One little boy I know, in the midst of a recent fit, climbed to the top of a fridge to grab the butcher knife kept there and threaten his family.
When children have facility with words, not only are they better able to make themselves understood by others, but they are also better equipped to make sense of events and form lasting memories. Thus the importance of reading to and with children, and talking over events both before they take place (in preparation) and after (to create narratives).
It has been demonstrated through studies that children from variously disadvantaged backgrounds typically hear far fewer words a day than their more secure counterparts—yet another way that inequality is perpetuated, making social strata more difficult for some to climb. Literacy programs seek to work against that pernicious trend.
“Use your words” is meant to work against the trend of tantrums, storms of tears, sullen silences. Does it? I haven’t seen the evidence. I know I have a contrary, independent streak and tend to want to kick over any traces that harness me to someone else’s direction or notion of labor; but from my perspective, the expression feels more like an impatient, insensitive dictum from on high than like a loving and truly attuned and listening encouragement.
Anything can be co-opted; but think of the ease with which grown people say “Use your words” to one another, with the explicit intent of being snide. If I were still a child, I wouldn’t have the words to say how I felt about hearing that from an adult, but I know it would make me feel as though the person speaking were asserting an unwelcome and invasive authority over me. How do you know what words are my words? What does it mean that you know, when I apparently don’t?
Another way to think about it is that in saying “Use your words,” the adult is often (and often unknowingly) simply outsourcing the hard work of relating, to the person least qualified to do it. “Use your words, as I wash my hands of this.” If words themselves are the point, why not just leave it at that? Would that not suffice as a reminder? “Use words” says much better, “Remember there’s a tool at your disposal.” Adding that possessive pronoun just raises questions about what the hell is meant, and who really owns what.
From a neuroscientific perspective, a child in a tantrum state or weeping fit needs first and foremost to calm down physiologically; the brain is not capable of cool reason and logic in a heated HPA cascade. And the way to calm a child is to love that child in ways the child can feel—to be patient; to touch if touch is welcome (or required for safety) and give near and supportive space if it is not; to offer sympathy for the strong emotions, via reflective statements. Not only does this demonstrate concern, but it models the exact behavior that’s desired: the positive use of words to communicate during a difficult time. When adults use their own words in prosocial ways, children are more likely to do the same.
Two excellent resources on working effectively with children are The Whole-Brain Child by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, and How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen by Joanna Faber and Julie King. I can’t recommend them enough!
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