Are You (Secretly) Calling Your Child an “Idiot”?

sad son hugging his dad near wall at the day time

HOW You Talk to Your Kids Matters

“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”

Right? I say that to my kids all the time. I may sound like a broken record, but my kids definitely understand that their intention is an important part of any good communication.

Communication happens in tone, expression, gesture – there’s a lot more to it than simple words.

Now don’t get me wrong – the words we choose are important. “Yes, and…” instead of “but” can disarm defense mode; “could” instead of “should” offers authentic choice and control; “what do you have for homework?” instead of “what do we have to get done tonight?” can empower a sense of ownership and independence.

Language matters – a lot.

But so does tone. It communicates volumes.

The Power of Tone

Often, we send messages we don’t really want to be sending – and we do this most with the ones we love. For example,

  • “Why didn’t you?” can send the message, “you’re an idiot.”
  • “What were you thinking” sends the message, “you can’t do anything right.”
  • “For the tenth time” sends the message, “you have no respect for me.”
  • And so on.

    In the outside world, we tend to be more cautious. We are polite when we speak to those in authority (“yes, m’am”), and we are often even considerate when we speak to strangers (“don’t worry, you can go ahead of me in line.”)

    But to our loved ones? Well, we can be downright mean – without meaning to be!

    A Tone Game to Play with Kids

    Years ago I did a workshop with a group of third grade girls. They got to take turns standing in front of the room, stating a simple request, “Would you take your backpack off the table, please?” It could have been anything, really. Put your coat on the hook, put your shoes in the hall. Whatever.

    But before each girl took a turn, I called out an emotion for her to express in the request. I called out words like: kind, angry, impatient, sweet, annoyed, hungry, supportive, loving, hateful, sarcastic, etc.

    As you can imagine, it was really funny, and the girls loved the game.

    But it was also eye opening. Especially to the parents in the room who could hear themselves in their daughter’s voices – and they didn’t always like what they heard.

    Are you calling Your Child an Idiot?

    More often than we realize, our tone sabotages our communication with our kids, and with our spouses. We think we’re masking our frustration or disappointment or fear, but we’re not. We’re speaking the truth in volumes, while our words tell another story.

    Think about it.

  • Are you implying “you’ll never amount to anything” when you ask your child “what were you thinking?”
  • Are you suggesting, “I don’t believe in you,” when you ask your child, “are you sure?”
  • Are you expressing, “you’re such a disappointment,” when you ask “how did you do on that test?” (implied: “that you didn’t study for”).
  • Now, you’re human. Sometimes, you’re going to look at your sloppy teen, hiding behind earphones, drumming at the table, and think “you ungrateful freeloader” while you ask him to “pass the butter, please.”

    The challenge is to hide that thought from your voice until you can redirect it from your thoughts — to something more constructive for everyone.

    Use the Fortune-Cookie Game to Check your Tone

    You know that fortune-cookie game we used to play back in the dark ages, when you add “in bed” to the end of the fortune cookie, just for fun? (Hope this doesn’t offend anyone – I was young, once). Well you can modify that game to help you change your tone.

    Step 1. Think about the worry or fear you have most about your child – maybe that he’s rude and disrespectful, or that he’s never going to make it, or that she’s a slacker with no motivation. That is likely to be the tone you are unwittingly expressing in your voice.

    Step 2. Then, ask yourself (or your spouse or BFF, if you’re really brave), what expression tends to sneak out in your tone? Narrow it down to the 1-3 tones that are most likely to slip in.

    Step 3. Begin to recognize your tendency in the moment, and start shifting your thoughts and feelings so that your tone has a different expression. You may fear “she’s a slacker,” but there is something else that’s also true that would be a more helpful thought, like “she’s so creative,” or “I wonder what would work to help motivate her?”

    Examples of Hidden Tones

    For me, for example, when I’m not careful, my tone tends to suggest “you slacker.” “Have you fed the dogs (you slacker)?” or “Have you unpacked your lunchbox (you slacker)?”

    I was working with a client who is so worried that her 12 year old son is not going to make it as an adult in the world that her message seems to always sound like that character in Gulliver’s Travels who said things like, “you’re doomed, you’ll never make it.” “What do you have for homework tonight (“you’re doomed”?) You did great on that test (“but you’re still doomed”).

    One of my daughters has a tendency to imply “you idiot” to her tone, though she doesn’t REALLY mean it. Not always, anyway. My spouse’s tone implies “seriously, I have to tell you this again?”

    I think you get the picture, here. Whatever makes you most frustrated or concerned for your child is likely to come out in your tone without your intention. And it’s up to you to recognize that, and begin to shift your thoughts about it, so that you can improve your communication.

    To be honest, I work really hard at shifting this, but sometimes it comes out, anyway. I’m human, after all. But it’s a lot better than it used to be, and progress is what we’re looking for here, not perfection.

    In the meantime, if this resonates with you, I definitely encourage you to read Diane’s article, “How to Apologize When You’ve Hurt Your Child’s Feelings.”

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