I hear my mother's language when I talk to my kids

Your Life
Dr. Cathleen McGreal
November, 2017

Q: I hear my mother’s voice sometimes when I talk. Is there a better way to talk to my kids?

“Don't make that face or it'll freeze that way!” I remember hearing this when I got angry or pouted as a young child. When I was about four I had a brilliant idea. I framed my face into a smile and then spoke angry words at my brother. The smile meant that the words had a pleasant tone but the mismatch with the meaning must have made them sound sinister. My Grandma looked at me in horror, “What are you doing?” My response? “If my face freezes it is going to be a happy face. But I’m still mad at Timmy.” Often those old sayings don’t have the intended impact on a child!

“Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about!” Threats are not motivating and they don’t provide insights into what the child is thinking. What was the child intending to do when the problem occurred? Was there a mistake in judgement? Or was there a deliberate intent to harm? Tailor your response to the specifics of the situation.

“If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all!” Many of those old sayings can give the child a path for future interactions if you provide context. After one pops out, expand the meaning to the situation: “Ava felt sad when you told her that her new haircut looked dumb. We need to keep some of our thoughts to ourselves. It isn’t OK to use put-downs. Next time think for a minute and decide what to say.”

"Do I have to turn this car around?" Make sure your words represent something that you would actually do. Yelling into the backseat at arguing children is just adding more fuel to the fire as well as creating a distraction for the driver. St. Theresa of Ávila is said to have carried a prayer with her: “Let nothing disturb you, Let nothing frighten you, All things are passing; God only is changeless. Patience gains all things. Who has God wants nothing. God alone suffices.” Pull over the car, center yourself with a short prayer and then resolve the issues.

Slight modifications in some of the sayings we grew up with might be a better fit. When I was a teen I was angry when I heard, “When you have your own house then you can make the rules!” But it popped into my mind frequently with my own teens. Changing it to, “I can tell that when you grow up you’re going to have really different rules with your kids!” led to, “I sure am!” Their perspective was acknowledged but the house rules weren’t changing. Take a look at what pops out of your mouth and make changes if needed. And by the way, “Always change your underwear; you never know when you'll have an accident!”