Speaking in Abstracts

“That’s not nice!”

“Are you going to be good today?”

Good. Bad. Nice. Mean. Kind. Unkind. Friendly. Unfriendly. What do these words really mean to very small children? Most children are masters of reading context and signals to try to decode our meaning. They’re observant and intuitive, to a truly remarkable extent. From your frown and your tone, they will deduce that, “Not nice!” makes you unhappy, and they may feel upset, unsettled, or saddened by this, but will they understand why? And (here is the real heart of the issue) does nice or not nice always mean the same thing? They can’t possibly.

Think of the limitless possibilities in these subjective descriptive terms. A day can be nice, in general. A person can be nice, in general. A specific act or word or gesture from a person could also be nice (sharing is nice, hugs are nice, smiles are nice). Ice cream can taste nice. A sunset can look nice. Some music can sound nice. A new sweater can feel nice… or not nice, depending on how scratchy the wool may be. Wearing a sweater that doesn’t feel nice could make a person act, “not nice,” by inciting grumbles and moans and disgruntled expressions. Hopefully it wouldn’t lead to hitting or pushing or biting, but if you’re sensitive enough to scratchy fabrics and you’re having a day that is reaching that level of “not nice,” it could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and that really wouldn’t be nice at all, would it? It certainly wouldn’t be good. Oh, but don’t get me started on good and bad. I’m not sure I could be nice about it.

Here’s my point: say what you mean. If you want a child to sit down in their chair, on their bottom, with their feet under the table, tell them that, rather than, “Sit down nicely!” If you want a child to stop hitting or pushing, tell them that, rather than, “I want you to be good today,” or, “Be nice!”

The issue with these subjective adjectives is that very young children will have a hard time deciphering what we’re asking of them, leading to frustration on our part and A LOT of frustration and confusion on their parts. I believe they are more often than not trying their very best to understand a pretty consistently confusing world. I don’t believe it’s fair to them. (Especially when they don’t live up to a seemingly arbitrary standard of nice or good that they didn’t understand in the first place and then we accuse them of not listening!)

Young children tend to be pretty black-and-white and literal in their understandings. I’ll never forget when my little brother was about four years old and was having a hard time expressing something to me. “Spit it out!” I told him, impatiently, and, panicked look on his face, he began frantically spitting onto the carpet in my bedroom, thinking that there was something awful in his mouth. Talk about a good reminder for me to say what I mean! When it comes to children’s black-and-white rules, we need to tread lightly with terms like “good” and “bad”. When we request that children, “Be good!” we are not only providing no clear direction for what we specifically want them to do or not do, but we’re also applying an unreasonable amount of pressure. If they’re not “good” in every sense we’ve ever taught them, are they then “bad”?

Communication is always a two-way street. Children are doing their part to read between the lines, jump through hoops, and understand what in the world we’re trying to say. The least we can do for them is do our best to be understood.

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10 thoughts on “Speaking in Abstracts

  1. Such a great reminder. Not only because children understand it more clearly as you describe insightfully, but also because it seems more honest, like non-judgemental boundaries. In the same vein, we reminded ourselves just yesterday to simply say to our toddler “I want you to xyz” or “I don’t want you to xyz”, as an honest expression rather than “don’t” with the inevitable twinge of annoyance in our voice. So I guess clarity is also knowing ourselves and taking care of ourselves as parents.

  2. Amanda says:

    Hehe, ‘taking it literally’ reminds me of when my Brother was little. He was kissing the cat’s mouth when Mum said that it was dirty and he’d be better off kissing it’s bum. He looked at her then lifted the cats tail and kissed it’s bottom! He burst into tears when we started laughing, poor thing.
    Great article, thanks 🙂

  3. Cary says:

    It was around Christmas time and my daughter looked at me and said, “Mom you can’t peel eyeballs only grapes!” A month went by and I realized that while we were driving, I had asked her to keep her eyes peeled for Christmas lights. It was a relief to finally figure this out, her comment had originally left me feeling a little concerned.

  4. JG says:

    Oh my gosh, Cary, that is hilarious! There are so many phrases that sound like this to the untrained ear. I once told a preschooler, “It’s a piece of cake!” He looked all around: “WHERE??” 🙂 I just love how kids make us look at the world differently, with our eyes peeled.

  5. JG says:

    Hahaha! Poor little guy. (And poor cat — what a surprise!) Thanks for sharing though… your brother may not appreciate it, but the story sure made me laugh 😉

  6. JG says:

    So true! I really appreciate how you mentioned the honesty part of the equation. It’s best when we can be that genuine with children! They are so in tune with us that it seems unfair to be anything but.

  7. Jaclyn says:

    Reblogged this on Kinda Crunchy and commented:
    I love this post. It’s so hard for us parents to step back and look at the bigger picture sometimes. This is an excellent reminder of the importance of choosing our words carefully and being intentional with our guidance.

  8. Reblogged this on My Life Narrative Blog and commented:
    this post really made me open my eyes to what i’ve really been saying to Owen lately and helped me understand why i’ve been so frustrated with him. he clearly has been frustrated with me causing a chain reaction and the source of it all is the way i talk to him. parents we really need to choose our words wisely. =)

  9. A young boy in daycare was having an issue with biting other children. The care givers were instructing him to “use your words” instead of biting when he was frustrated. So he did, saying “I will bite you!” before biting his next victim. Ouch!

  10. JG says:

    OUCH! Smart boy 🙂 He has a lot to teach his caregivers.

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