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Encouraging Expressiveness in Children

By Kathryn Streeter

A scuffle erupted in the adjoining room between the two cousins. The next moment, the sweaty girls, bedecked in matching Disney princess nightgowns, burst into the room to tell the adults what was happening.

My toddler wanted to be the explainer: “Maddy was pulling my hair. I was pulling Maddy’s dress. I was so frustrated!” Though her tantrum didn’t make me happy, her ability to choose her words did.

I found her word choice reassuring because as a 30-something mom, I was concerned about how to nudge my verbal firstborn toward accurate, expressive language. She was quick, parroting every word dropped around her, enabling her tendency to sass back.

Abandoning all the parenting books and research which effectively contradicted each other, I went the way of the simple, banning dumb, hate and boring. I believed that these particular throw-away words she randomly deployed masked what was going on inside. True feelings required a meatier vocabulary and I hoped banning these overworked words would help nurture robust language.

A few years into my experiment, she first heard the “f-word” on the playground after kindergarten. On our drive home, instead of talking about the monkey bars she’d mastered or what happened in the lunchroom, my daughter wanted to discuss this new word. Like a piece of candy, she wanted to taste it and have more. This experience confirmed my belief that trying to protect kids from bad language—whether of the tsk-tsk-tsk-kids-shouldn’t-say-these-words garden variety or raw sewage adult variety—is a misguided approach. I wouldn’t always be there to clap my hands over her ears and protect her from hurtful, ugly words thoughtlessly spewing around her. Words are untamed beasts and the world is a jungle full of them, stalking the elementary schoolyard as much as anywhere.

I was glad I’d pursued a different path years before. I thought it to be better to help my chatterbox daughter learn what to say, not simply what not to say.

“Mom! I hate sunscreen!” Well, I hated this sloppiness. I wanted to force her to use her words to precisely identify emotion and speak more accurately about her experience. So I ask her to slow down. “Use your words. Why don’t you like sunscreen?” What she really meant was that the slimy feel of sunscreen is yucky. Perfect.

My concerns for my child are long-term. Indiscriminately blurting out words will blunt her ability to be emotionally in tune with herself. Precisely identifying her emotions would promote stronger decisions and build healthier relationships. Understanding her weaknesses and strengths would aid her to unapologetically play up her strengths. In short, I desired her emotional IQ to be as strong as her brain.

The word boring repulses me in a different way. I don’t think anyone should be bored. There are certainly tasks that are boring to execute, but sitting around feeling bored? No way.

Teaching my child that “being bored” was utter-nonsense, an agenda item I couldn’t let go of, putting me on the hot seat more than the other words. When she would mumble the b word, I’d produce picture books for reading, notebooks, colored pencils and crayons from my big mom bag. Eventually, she’d lose herself designing mazes or drawing curvy women in fashionable gowns. Or maybe one of her beloved stuffed animals would emerge “talking” out of my pocket in the middle of Trader Joe’s when a meltdown was imminent. I played the role of magician in the short-term.

In time, I reconsidered and made adjustments, gradually phasing myself out as entertainer. I left her to figure it out. Not helping her cope with feelings of boredom would ultimately help her learn resourcefulness, one of life’s most valuable lessons.

As a parent, I often feel bogged down by having to enforce all the rules I set up. With my early decision to ban just three words, I felt a weird sense of relief, that this was something I could enforce. In return, it was encouraging to watch my child respond.

Three words were doable for both of us.

This essay was originally published by ParentMap