What We Say to Children Can Have Long-Lasting Impact

Our words, either positive or negative, can stick with them for decades.

Posted May 03, 2020

When I was about 7 years old, my mother warned me about eating pork products. She told me that pork needed to be cooked thoroughly because if there were even a hint of pink in your pork chop, you could get Trichinosis.

I didn’t know what Trichinosis was, however, it was described to me as a terrible disease that I did not want to get. When you’re 7, hearing the words terrible disease was enough, I didn’t need any more warning than that. I had gotten shots for mumps and the measles and had my sugar cube to protect me from polio, so if just making sure my pork was cooked well would stop me from getting this hard to pronounce disease, I was all for it.

This clear warning from my mother stuck with me that day and has stuck all of these decades later. There has not been a time in my life when I have ever eaten any pork product before checking that it was cooked thoroughly. Soggy bacon has been suspect, as has any other pork product that frankly didn’t look overdone. A number of years ago (when I was well into middle age) I was eating dinner at a friend’s house and she was serving pork. And (gasp), it had some pink in it. I freaked out.  I explained to our host and the other dinner guests the danger that was clearly present in this meal. I insisted that the pork had to be cooked further and I felt proud of myself for saving everyone with my quick-thinking and keen awareness. 

It was only after I went home that evening that I decided to see how many people in the United States actually get Trichinosis. I checked Google and discovered that the year this happened there were less than 15 cases in the entire United States. Less than 15 Trichinosis cases (and I’m not even sure those were from eating undercooked pork). 

The reason I bring this up is the impact that your words have on children. Casual warnings can seem like life and death edicts to young minds. I know my mother was trying to protect me from an illness that may have been more dangerous 50 years ago than it is now. The point is, how powerful those messages are and how long they last.    

As adults, we may say things casually to children because we want them to be safe. We may exaggerate, or we may make things seem more dangerous than they actually are. After all, we want children to take what we say seriously. However, we can also overemphasize something and cause fear in a child that they may carry with them for the rest of their lives.

This also goes for the way we treat children. Sharp words; lack of compassion; letting our emotions cause us to lash out unfairly; all of these are behaviors that can impact children negatively. They are noticed and absorbed by our kids. Even when children are being defiant, they may be internalizing our words of frustration and anger. The way we behave and the words we use are what they are learning from us. These early internalized behaviors can impact their self-image and may eventually be how they treat their own children and spouses. That’s why it is so important that we stay aware of how we talk to children. The more conscious we are of what we’re saying and the reasons we’re saying it can help us model positive behaviors.

The bottom line is that our children are listening to us all of the time. Whether we’re praising them, disciplining them, or responding to them out of our own frustrations, we are modeling for them how adults communicate. The more we are aware that they are absorbing what we say, hopefully, the more respectful and careful we are about the ways we are communicating with them.

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