Words matter. Anyone who has spent 30 seconds in middle school knows this. They are packed with power. They have the power to cut like a knife and to bring forth beautiful smiles and unexpected laughter. They can give a sense of belonging or a sense of soul crushing loneliness. They can define a child and completely change the way that they see the world. Words said and unsaid are some of the most powerful forces in these children’s world.
For several reasons, the power of words has weighed upon my mind this week. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how the words we say or don’t say change the way that these children see the world and the people that they will become.
- Early in the week, I was watching a group of students work. The girls in the group were largely passive and the boys were dominant. When I approached them, I told the girls that they need to be more assertive. I told the boys they needed to take a step back. One of the boys said, “but I’m better at it”. My initial reaction was “you are being so selfish”. The words started to spill out of my mouth. Just in time, I caught myself and re-framed it to say something to the effect that “you need to be generous enough to give them the chance to explore how to do this as well. You need to be generous enough to let them learn.” Changing the way I framed the comment was probably one of the most powerful teacher moves I have made in a while. The next day, the girls were in the thick of things. The boy who didn’t want to yield the floor had an entirely different demeanor. He was indeed being generous. That dynamic held all week. Everyone in that group saw themselves a little differently because the words they heard changed the way that they saw themselves. I can’t claim wisdom in this choice, just a little bit of serendipitous luck for which I am grateful.
- Late in the week, a colleague mentioned something that a student had said. He said that his father had come home from a meeting at school and said “I roasted those teachers”. I kept thinking that as he shared those words with his son, he said so many things, some of which he probably does not realize. He said that he doesn’t value his son’s teachers or the work that they do and that his son doesn’t need to either. He said that bullying his way through a situation is an acceptable problem-solving strategy and that his son can do the same. He said that he thinks the entirety of the issue rests on the teacher’s shoulders and that his son bears no responsibility or ownership in the situation. He said that he will “take care of” whatever happens and that his son does not need to learn to self-advocate. He said that he doesn’t really believe in his son’s ability to handle a problem.
The words that children hear have a powerful impact. They influence who they will become and how they will see the world. Sometimes we get it right when we speak to children and sometimes we don’t. None of us are perfect. I’m left this week, though, thinking about the importance of being intentional with the words that we choose to speak to our children.