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  • Writer's pictureAliza

Words Matter

I am a quiet person. I feel shy on a regular basis. People often ask me to speak up. Especially when I am feeling shy. I can be quiet for a very long time. (Teachers loved me.) Because I am quiet, I can watch and I can listen. Then I analyze what I observe.

In my work with small children, often fewer words work better. If you drone on too long, if you speak with many abstractions, you run the risk of losing your audience. Because I work with people whose time on this planet is still counted in months, their experiences are limited, so I choose my words carefully to make sure they know what I'm talking about. I have 43 years of experiences and associations with the meaning of my words. They have 3.

Something else I have discovered with kids. When you get the words right, they listen. Or, you know, they listen more often.

Case in Point

Once a child in my class cried because someone took the baby pig she often played with. "He took my pig! I was using that!" I explained that she wasn’t, in fact, using it yet, that it belonged to the whole class, and that she could have a turn, but she just had to wait a little bit. All reasonable points on my part. I was calm, caring, and firm. All the things that are supposed to work. I even validated her feelings, saying “you want to use the baby pig, and you’re upset it’s not your turn.”

I did everything I was supposed to do. Everything that works like magic most of the time.

"But it's mine! I want it!" she continued to cry. It seemed I was just going to have to let her be upset until she wasn't anymore (that is a good skill to practice, too). But I tried one more tactic. "You planned to use that baby pig. And now you have to change your plan. That is hard." She smiled and said, "I know! I can make a new plan!"

Of course, it doesn't always pan out that neatly and perfectly. But, quite frankly, I am surprised how often it does. Why? I think it's because, A) I am awesome, And B) because I found the right words. The truest ones. The ones that described all those feelings inside her. She used the words "it's mine!" Those were the words she knew to describe being sad about wanting something that someone else has. But, it is not what she meant. So my attempts to

convince her otherwise failed.

It takes practice.

Here's another example. You know that thing kids do, where they say something, anything, and when it gets a big (positive or negative) response from another child, they say it again even louder and more frequently.

Like This:

Child one: Poop.

Child two: Stop! I don't like that!


And furthermore, poop.

Grown ups say lots of things in response to stop this behavior; "Bathroom talk belongs in the bathroom." "You're friend says he doesn't like that." "Be nice. Be kind." "Stop." And those words are fine. They are passing on our expectations and our values to our children. If we are firm, calm, and consistent, they get the message.

You know what words works super well, though? "It looks like you are playing a game where you are trying to make your friend upset. I can't let you play that game."

Bam. Truth. No judgement.

Child one discovered and enjoyed the power her words had over another. So she did it again, because it was fun. Like a game. It's okay. She's been alive for a little over 36 months, and talking for maybe half of that. It takes time to learn to be a human who follows our social conventions. And so my message to her is simple. I can't let that game continue, because I have a job to do. I have to take care of all the children in our classroom, and if I let one upset another over and over again, I am not doing my job.

Anyhow, I am not using just a few words anymore. So I'll just summarize like this: Using fewer words work, especially when they are simple and true descriptions.

One of the beauties of great children's stories, is the ability to capture a character, a feeling, a story, with just a smattering of carefully chosen words(and images). And because those stories are often read aloud, the words create a cadence or rhythm. Even when the words don't rhyme.

And so, I repeat, words matter. They matter in our lives and they matter in our stories, because if you choose them well they can capture what goes on in worlds and our minds and our hearts.

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