Your words matter!

“Come sit next to me. I promise I won’t bite.” My first thought is, that’s a possibility?!? I know the adult was joking and trying to be silly, but this is a great prompt for us to think about our language. Young children have a difficult time understanding sarcasm and abstract concepts. To the adult, biting the child isn’t an option. That would never happen. She was being funny. To the child, though, the thought of, “Oh my goodness, she may not bite me now but what about later?” may pop in his head.

The importance of specific directions and feedback.

Here’s another one: “Come here, I need to change your bottom.” What else do we change on children? We change their clothes. What does that mean? We take off the clothes they are currently wearing, put them in the dirty laundry, and put different clothes on the child. We change shoes. The child takes the current shoes off and puts on a whole new pair of shoes. When the child hears the word ‘change’ the picture of taking off the current and putting the new on may pop in her head. Why would it be different with their bottom? The adult is using the same words.

“Do you want me to put on your arms?” This was overheard during an art project. The adult was asking the child if she needed help attaching the paper (arms) to the paper. Were they the children’s arms? No. They were pieces of paper.

Why am I even writing about something so silly? Does it really matter what words we use with children? Well, it makes a huge difference. Sometimes it’s the difference between a child understanding directions versus not. An example of this is telling a child to sit on their bottom. We tell children to sit on their bottoms in their chairs, right? When we introduce wheeled toys (tricycle, ride-upons), we tell children to sit on their bottoms. How do we teach them to sit on their bottoms in chairs? We put the chair behind them and tell them to sit down by bending their knees. The chair typically stays stationary and they can sit. What about a tricycle? We tell the child to sit down on their bottom. They go over to the tricycle, put it behind them, bend their knees, and fall to the floor because the tricycle rolled away. To sit on a tricycle, you have to swing a leg over. You may still put your bottom in the seat, but to accomplish that, you have to take different steps.

As adults, we have the life experiences to adjust our thinking or approaches to new material. As adults, we can joke about being bitten because we know it socially unacceptable for adults to bite others. Young children do not have those life experiences yet. Young children are still building their vocabulary. To help these young children understand new concepts, adults need to use language specific to the situation. Instead of saying we need to change the child’s bottom, we can say what we are specifically going to do. “Your diaper needs to be changed.” We aren’t changing the bottom, we are changing the diaper. If a child is having a difficult time joining in an activity, instead of saying we won’t bite the child, we can give alternatives to the activity. “It looks like you are not interested in this activity right now. I see you looking at the dolls. You can pick up a doll if you want.”

As educators, we are told when there is an unacceptable behavior; tell the child what we expect. Instead of saying, “Don’t run” we are instructed to say, “Use your walking feet.” I believe this practice should be used in more situations than just redirection. We should always be telling children what we are doing and what to expect. It’s respectful to the child and ultimately makes our days so much more successful.