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Language has a strong influence on how a child feels about themselves and when it’s used effectively and positively, it can be an extraordinarily powerful force for good.
The way we speak to young children during their formative years – both at home and in early education environments – impacts their sense of self. And when we use positive language in both the spoken word and in our body language when communicating with little people, we boost their self-esteem, help them feel more sure of themselves, more optimistic and more confident about their place in the world.
If ‘no’, ‘don’t’ and ‘stop’ are part of your everyday vocab, this article on the benefits of positive language for a child’s self-perception is worth a read. Because positive language is a skill that can be learned. You CAN modify the way you speak to children and you CAN use your voice to help them feel good about themselves.
The power of positive language
There’s no doubt that mental health is becoming an increasingly hot topic and even very young children can have mental health problems. Children with a low self-esteem can take their negativity into adulthood which can lead to bigger issues down the line, so it’s vital to engender positive feelings as early on as possible.
Let’s look at a couple of scenarios which highlight the stark difference between positive and negative language.
‘Stop running down the stairs, you’ll fall’
‘I see you’ve remembered to walk down the stairs instead of running. Good on you!’
‘Don’t draw on the table’
‘Crayons are for colouring in on the paper. I see you are trying hard to do that’
‘No, you can’t start a new game now. It’s bedtime’.
‘The game you want to play is a great idea. We can play it tomorrow when there’s more time.’
Positive language = positive attitudes and behaviours
Here are some of the ways that positive language can influence a child’s self-perception.
Be calm and clear and give the child time to respond.
A toddler or young child can easily become overwhelmed, confused or frustrated when they are given too much information or an overload of requests or commands. Talk calmly at the child’s level, make eye contact and take a few deep breaths to allow them time to react or respond.
Turn negatives into positives by asking questions.
Instead of telling a child not to do something, invite them to make a different choice or find a solution. Questions like ‘What would happen if…’ or ‘Why don’t you try …’ or ‘How about doing…’. Slight modifications to the way you communicate or respond to a child’s actions can be the difference between an escalated conflict situation where everyone feels bad or a scenario where the child finds a solution and solves a problem.
The use of ‘I’ language can help encourage positive behaviours.
‘I like the way you help me tidy the toys’, ‘I feel happy when you get ready for bed without a fuss’. Positive affirmations are powerful and help shape better behaviours in children and a stronger sense of self.
Give the child specific requests and offer them choices when appropriate.
They’re more likely to comply when they’re given choices (keep them simple and relatively benign!) and will feel good about themselves because they feel in control. This will boost their self-esteem and encourage them to make appropriate choices on their own as they get older.
Offer meaningful compliments.
Praise and encouragement are a crucial element of positive language, but it is important to give compliments with substance. ‘I liked how you shared your toys with Joe, I could see you were being kind’. ‘I love how you’ve used so many different colours to make that beautiful picture’. ‘You chose the right size blocks to build the tower’. This shows that you believe in the child and in their ability to make good choices.
Use language to give the child a sense of responsibility.
‘Please hold your little brother’s hand as we cross this busy road’ and ‘Please explain to your friends how we gently take care of our puppy’ are examples of how to use positive language to help children feel responsible and valued.
Remember that language is both verbal and non-verbal.
The way we communicate is just as important as what we say. Being mindful of our tone, volume and body language is crucial to keeping things positive.
Positive language has a long-term impact
Children who feel respected and valued are more likely to treat others in the same way and are likely to take those attitudes into adulthood.
In the same way that negative language can have a detrimental effect that endures over the long-term, positive language can have a powerful and lasting impact on people’s self-esteem and sense of worth.
When we make a conscious effort to use optimistic language with children – not on an ad hoc basis, but as a way of life at home or at school – we can have a significant influence on their feelings of self-worth.
- Gives a child responsibility
- Empowers children to believe in themselves and in their choices
- Fosters a child’s independence
- Boosts a child’s self-confidence
- Builds resilience
- Makes children feel respected and it inspires respect
- Cements children’s feelings of self-worth
- Allows children to feel equal as opposed to under the control of an authoritarian figure
Whether at home or in a childcare or early education environment, children benefit hugely from the power of positivity.
Language is one of the strongest influencers on the way children perceive themselves and when we make a concerted effort to communicate positively with them, we can empower them for life.