Choose your words wisely

As parents, our words have the power to build up our children and bring them into the fullness of life God has planted in them. Sadly, we also hold in our tongues the power to trample the seeds of future hope before they even have a chance to grow.

Proverbs 18:21 says, "Life and death are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit." This Scripture is especially true when applied to parenting.

Certainly as parents we need to offer our children correction and discipline. But we must choose our words wisely - so we can make sure our words administer life, not death. How do we do that? Here are three ways:

1. Use words to explain the reasons.

Rather than simply offering, "Because I'm the parent and I say so," use words to explain your reasons for correction and discipline.

Parents must teach the heart as well as discipline the selfish nature of their children. While it's important that kids learn to follow our instruction, they should also understand the reasons behind restrictions and standards. In this way children can choose by an act of will to obey. After all, isn't our goal to teach our children self-discipline?

Children who grow up in legalistic environments in which the parents simply bark out orders full of harsh words seem to obey just as long as mom and dad are watching. When parents turn their heads, the children often choose to act in rebellious ways.

After carefully explaining why I require a certain kind of behavior in our home, I frequently point to the Scripture that sets the standard. Talk about speaking words that bring life - there is no more powerful tool a parent can use than the Word that is Life! We can teach Scripture as the ultimate authority from the time children are very young.

One day when my son Tucker was 5 years old, he began to argue with me incessantly. I corrected him, then shared this Bible verse: "Do everything without grumbling and arguing, so that you may be blameless and pure, children of God who are faultless in a crooked and perverted generation, among whom you shine like stars in the world," (Philippians 2:14-15).

I explained, "Tucker, you are a child of God and you shine like a star - but when you argue, your light begins to fade. I want you always to shine brightly, so please think about your attitude."

The words sank in. Later he started to argue with me, but then he caught himself.

"Mommy," he asked, cupping his hand over his mouth, "am I still shining?" I smiled as I answered, "You are now."

2. Use word pictures that children can understand.

Word pictures and object lessons are ways to use words that bring life. Sometimes our words seem to go in one ear and out the other. We can speak words that are more likely to go straight to the heart through stories.

Jesus had good reason for sharing some of His most important kingdom truths through parables. Through His parables Jesus used word pictures to convey virtues He wanted to see in the hearts of people. I believe pictures are the language of children.

When I wanted my children to understand the power of words, I created a word picture for them. I first read James 3:5: "So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how large a forest a small fire ignites."

Next, I built a small fire in the backyard grill. We gathered several twigs and sticks, a match, lighter fluid, and a bucket of water. (If you don't have a grill, wait until you're on a camping trip!)

As I stacked the twigs I explained that the wood represents our words. Just as wood can be used to build things or burn things, our words can build up people, or they can destroy relationships.

As I struck the match, I explained it represents our anger. When our words (the wood) and anger (the match) mix, the outcome can be deadly.

Once our anger has flashed, we have a choice: We can fuel the fire by adding more wood (angry words) or even by adding lighter fluid (physical outbursts), or we can decide to put out the fire.

If it's a small fire, then we might simply cover the flames (our anger) with a wet cloth (love). This is what we do when we overlook the offense. And it works! As the Bible says, "Love covers all offenses," (Proverbs 10:12).

Of course, the quickest and most effective way to extinguish a fire is to douse it with water - or forgiveness. When we forgive someone and then choose to forget the incident, we quench our thirst for revenge.

3. Model good words for your children.

OK, here's the good news - and the bad news. Even if we quote God's Word, tell inspiring stories, and come up with interesting object lessons, children still learn the most by our example.

James 1:20 says, "For man's anger does not accomplish God's righteousness." I have to be honest; it's easy for me to get busy with things other than my children - scrapbooking, responding to e-mail, and, well, writing articles for magazines. When this becomes the case, I tend to yell at my children rather than actually parent them. My favorite phrases go something like this: "I've told you over and over again to ..." or "If I have to tell you one more time to ..." or "What's it going to take to get you to ...?" Sound familiar?

But shouting at children to cooperate is about as pointless as trying to steer a car with the horn. When I finally got it through my thick skull that anger doesn't work, I was able to curb it a bit.

Think about it this way: We wouldn't yell at a tomato plant to make it produce. That would be ridiculous! All we can do is give the plant structure so it will grow in the right direction, clip the dead leaves, water it, and make sure it gets plenty of sunshine. In the end, God produces the fruit - the growth is certainly not a result of any of our ranting or raving.

What makes this a sad analogy is tomatoes don't get bruised by our words like our children do. And yelling at our kids does not bring them any closer to godliness. Anger may accomplish our immediate goal, but it won't achieve for them "the righteousness of God," which should be our ultimate goal.

Point Out the Positive

I have discovered that I'm quick to point out the things my children are doing wrong, even through loving correction. Unfortunately, I'm not quite as quick to notice when they are playing quietly, working hard, or getting along with one another. Maybe it's because I'm enjoying the peace so much. I've had to train my eyes and heart to look for ways to encourage their good choices and speak words that reinforce positive behavior.

I once ordered a bunch of pencils inscribed with "Caught you doing good!" I hid them in a drawer and whipped one out whenever I "caught" one of my kids making a right choice - even when he or she thought no one would notice.

My favorite way to make sure my children know I am watching and am pleased with what I see is a "Pickle a Privilege" jar. I cleaned a pickle jar and filled it with slips of paper containing a variety of extra-special privileges. When one of my children catches me off guard and makes one of those extraordinary "just because I want to please God" kinds of choices, it's time for them to pick a slip from the jar.

If you want to create your own "Pickle a Privilege" jar, here are a few privilege ideas: you may have a soft drink with dinner; you may stay up 30 extra minutes one night; you may go to a Saturday matinee; you may choose the next pizza topping; you may have a pillow fight; you may go to work with Dad; you may eat dessert first; here's a "get out of jail (correction) free" card.

Of course, nothing is more powerful than, "I love you, and I'm proud of you." We simply can't say words like that too often to our children (young and old). A few tender words of affirmation go a long way - I know when I reach heaven, just like a child, I will thrill to hear the Father say to me, "Well done."

Lisa Whelchel and her husband, Steve, have three children. She is a speaker and author of Creative Correction, The Facts of Life: And Other Lessons My Father Taught Me, and So You're Thinking About HomeSchooling. You can visit her Web site at

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