Our children are the jewels of our families. They are gorgeous and precious. They are worth protecting, physically and emotionally. This doesn’t mean shielding them from all harm and worthwhile life lessons. This means raising a person who believes they are worthy of love and who has confidence (not pride) they can do good. The practice of instilling self-worth starts when they are young.

Words are powerful and the consistent repetition of words can make truth. For that reason I removed “bad” from my vocabulary with my middle son.

My middle son is Will and he is aptly named. He is willful and he is wild. He is a hot-tempered, impetuous four-year-old. He has told me on several occasions he’s “had a enough of my decisions.” He pees off my front stoop. He wants to be a bank robber when he grows up. Last year he ate a poison berry, a rock, sardines & pretzels, raw oysters, and hot sauce. He’s reckless and really fun.

Will makes every day interesting and trying. He’s the reason I’m quietly crying in the bathroom or dead asleep before 10. And one day I realized I was yelling at him all the time. I was too often losing my temper and admonishing “no” and “bad” and it wasn’t working. I worried that all this yelling would make him numb, or worse, an angry person with a chip on his shoulder. Would he become bitter?

So I changed the approach. I decided to use precise language in only a calm voice. Instead of yelling, I would count to five while thinking of the right word to use. I would not knee-jerk yell.

Precise language is key for owning the situation and preserving Will’s confidence. He cannot actually be “bad” at four-years-old. When he spills his milk he is “careless.” When he fails to get dressed, he is “distracted.” When he says something fresh he is “disrespectful.” He’s not bad, he’s just testing the limits. It’s aggravating but I understand it.

Not only for discipline, precise language is great to uplift his sense of self. He’s learning who he is and his role in the family. When he waits his turn, he’s “well-mannered.” His artwork isn’t “good” it’s “insightful.” I tell Will he’s “adventurous” and “exuberant” and “jocular” and that helps me appreciate his antics.

It’s not easy. As a reminder, I wear a red rubber band bracelet and snap it to slow down a moment. Will is still the same person, but we both see him differently. My hope is that clearer language will help him understand an escalating situation so he can quickly turn it around. I pray these choice adjectives define his self image more positively. He’s four and he’s struggling to figure out how to get what he wants from the world. So we’re trying this new method to preserve that wonderful childhood confidence. I don’t want to beat him down but I do still want to correct him.

With enough time, maybe this habit will even change my own “bad” mom inner dialogue.

Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s Raising Your Spirited Child was the inspiration for this line of thinking. She provides great examples of reframing behavior more positively in her book. By using words other than “bad” we actually address the issue at hand. Here’s a list of some common first reactions I attempt in any given week…

  • Leaves toys strewn around the backyard —>  “You are in a hurry! Let’s slow down and make sure you clean up before you start another activity. You are a very capable cleaner upper.”
  • Leaves pile of clothes on the floor —> “You must be so excited to read stories with me! But first you should put the dirty clothes in their place.”
  • Refusing to eat his creamed spinach —>  “You sure are selective! I know you have high standards but I’d like you try it.”
  • Whines about not getting ice cream —> “You are expressing yourself very clearly that you want ice cream now. We won’t get it this time but I will consider it tomorrow.”
  • Screams because he was sent to his room —> “I know you are an extrovert and don’t like to be alone. When you are calm you can join me in the kitchen to help cook.” 
  • Interrupts when I am speaking —> “You are passionate about this idea! Please be patient and wait for me to finish my conversation.”
  • Runs out the front door —> “You are very independent. I bet you will love to go to preschool and be on your own. But when we are home, you must stay in the house with me.”
  • Grunts and moans at his brother —> “You must be frustrated. I know you know the words that will describe what you are thinking.”
  • Doesn’t come at my call for dinner —> “You must be really enjoying yourself. Come to dinner and you can go back and finish that activity in 20 minutes.”
  • Insists on wearing a shirt with a superhero character—> “It’s good to know what you want! You can pick your socks right now and your pajamas tonight. We wear collar shirts for church to be extra handsome.”
  • Is handsy with the baby —> “You can be very friendly with people you like. The baby needs space to move. Tapping his head is not what we do to our friends.”

Christi Terjesen

Christi Terjesen is the mother of three lively boys in New York. She keeps her sanity through daily walks, expensive wine, and good books. Check out her blog, Mental Stimulation for Moms at christiterjesen.com, and her playground blog, longislandplaygrounds.com.