What not to say in front of your children

As a writer, I think a lot about word choices. The words you choose can make or break a sentence. And as a writer, I usually have time to sit and ponder my word choices and run them past someone else. I can change things when they don’t quite sit right with me, or if I’ve said something I didn’t intend.

But I don’t have that luxury when I’m talking. I make remarks off-the-cuff when I’m angry or upset, or even just being silly. Especially when I don’t think little kids are within earshot. I often cringe after I’ve said something, realizing that it wasn’t quite what I intended.

And when you have children, you really have to watch what you say. And I’m not (just) talking about swear words, I’m talking about putting down myself and others, even privately at home. Something I’ve realized about myself is that I can be harsh about my own appearance, and my three year old really is quite the sponge. Everything I say, she takes in and it all gets squeezed out later at school with the other children. When I say things like “I really need to lose some weight” or “I just don’t look good in this” or “I wish I were a little bit taller,” I hear it again later. “Mommy has a big tummy,” or “Mommy’s shirt is funny.” While for the most part this is harmless, it’s a slippery slope. I worry that repeatedly showing my daughter that I’m unsatisfied with myself will show her that it’s normal to be unhappy with yourself and disparage your own appearance. Right now, when I tell my daughter she is beautiful, she usually says, “I know!” and I want her to continue to think that way. Because, well, of course she is :)

Likewise, I’ve been thinking about what I say about other people in front of her. For example, who hasn’t said “Wow, she looks awful in that photo!” when talking about the latest starlet’s paparazzi shot. Is denigrating other women’s appearances really appropriate behavior? I’ve been making an effort not to speak negatively about people we see in magazines or on TV–saying things like “oh wow she’s skinny!” or “why is she wearing that hideous dress?!?!” (things we all say and do). Just as word choices matter when writing, there are ways to phrase things so that they come across as personal preferences, rather than value judgements on someone’s personality or intelligence.

Of course all of this is easier said than done.

Fellow writers and parents, what do you do?

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2 Responses to What not to say in front of your children

  1. Jason Black says:

    As writers (at least, if we’re any good) I think we’re actually better equipped than most to watch what we say around our kids. Because of the mental processes involved in writing, we’re accustomed to constantly evaluating the impact language, word choice, et cetera, will have on a reader: on the reader’s perception of what’s true in our stories, on how characters feel about one another, et cetera. We practice that kind of thinking all the time.

    So we’re well situated to extend that same thinking to what we say in front of our kids. “How is this going to affect my kid’s view of what’s true in the world, of how I feel about her,” et cetera.

    It all comes down to the writer’s single most important skill: empathy. When we write, we have to be able to empathize simultaneously with our characters and our readers, so as to choose the words to write which will have the effect we want to create. How is it any different to extend this same empathy to the other people in our lives?

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