How to Get Kids to Talk Nicely to Each Other (and You!)
Simple tips you can use with your family today
by Steve Silvestro, MD @zendocsteve
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This is the second in a series on raising kind kids. If you missed the article on starting a Family Kindness Journal, check it out here.
If you’ve been at this parenting thing for a while now, then I’m sure you know that kids don’t always have a filter when it comes to things they say.
As a result, every now and then you might find yourself suddenly aghast at the words that have left your child’s mouth, leaving you to respond with something like: “Did you really just say that?” or “Is that how you would talk to your friends or your teacher?”
It’s true: Kids do say the darndest things. And unfortunately, some of the worst of those things are said to their siblings or even to you.
And while it’s unrealistic to expect that your kids will be nice to each other all the time—after all, we don’t even expect adults to always be perfect—it would be nice to have some sort of approach that you can use when your child’s words have gotten out of line. Not only might it make life at home a bit smoother, it would also teach your child a skill to use when relating to other people down the road.
So what to say?
The ‘Golden Rule’ sums it up nicely—treat others they way you want them to treat you—but since you may have said this to your kids a million times since they were toddlers, you’re likely to get eye rolls any time you say it again.
The suggestion to “think before you speak” is also nice, but it’s not as helpful as we’d like. After all, what should you think before you speak? No, we need to give our kids a plan that’s more specific.
That’s where the notion of ‘Right Speech‘ comes in. Right Speech is a Buddhist principle that offers a checklist of what to think about before one speaks, and can be simplified for kids into these three questions:
- Is it honest?
- Is it kind?
- Is it necessary?
Is It Honest?
Anyone who has a kid or who’s even just been a kid knows that children don’t always tell the truth. They might bend the truth due to their own wild imaginations, a goal of self-preservation, or a whole host of other reasons.
And while the topic of lying and kids is a complex discussion in and of itself, I think it’s safe to say that we’d all like our children to speak honestly. Not only does honesty from your kids make your job easier, it’s also the root of speaking kindly to others—for inserting a falsehood into a conversation, no matter what the goal of doing so, robs the relationship of integrity, even if only for a moment and even if it’s just amongst children.
Letting your kids know that that your family values telling the truth, and that they won’t get in trouble when they tell the truth—no matter what it is—can help your kids learn to value honesty, as well.
Recommend to your children that when talking to or about other people, the question “Is what I’m about to say honest?” should be the first thing that they ask themselves before they speak.
Is It Kind?
Honesty, of course, isn’t the only thing we want our kids to think about when we’re trying to teach them how to speak nicely to others.
In fact, sometimes the truth can be pretty unkind. Don’t we all know someone who says something like, “I don’t mean to be a jerk, but…” or who ends hurtful utterances with “…just saying…”? Those phrases basically translate to “I’m telling you something that’s probably pretty mean.”
This is where the concept of the Golden Rule really comes into play. You can get your child to think about whether or not their words will hurt another person by asking them to think how they would feel if someone said those words to them. Relating to other people in this way can be challenging for a child, but it’s an important skill and we can begin teaching it to children even in the preschool years.
Of course, sometimes we have to tell someone an ‘inconvenient truth’—something they need to hear, even if they don’t really want to hear it. While younger kids might not be able to understand this, older children and teens may be able to recognize these situations when they arise. And if they can, then you can teach them to think: “Is there a way that I can say this in a constructive way—a way that might not sting so much or that can help them in some way?”
Ask your child to think about how she would want to be told what she wants to say, and you’ll find that even telling someone an ‘inconvenient truth’ can be considered kind when the goal is to help that person and it’s done in a supportive way.
Which brings us to…
Is It Necessary?
This is the trickiest question to teach your kids to ask themselves before they speak. “Does what I’m about to say add anything of value to the conversation? What is the benefit of what I’m about to say?”
Obviously, this is the most advanced step of Right Speech, and is something perhaps more appropriate for school-aged children than for toddlers. But imagine your child growing up as a person whose words and insights are valued by others because his or her thoughts are more likely to add something meaningful to others. This is a skill of the most prized leaders, mentors, and friends.
The “is it necessary?” question is humbling, too. Try asking yourself this question before you speak, and you’ll be surprised by how silent you might become! Yet that silence is valuable, too, as through it you might learn to become a better listener—which in turn may lead to more useful thoughts and words to share.
How To Do It
While you might feel the urge to start working on this in the very moment that your kids say something hurtful or off-color, that’s probably not the best time to first introduce all of these ideas.
Instead, introduce the three questions of Right Speech when everyone is in a good mood and more receptive to new ideas. Dinner or another family meal might be a good time to raise them.
Then, put these questions into action when examples of hurtful speech come up—but not yet when it’s your child who’s taking part. For example, if a character in a TV show or a story you’re reading says something unkind to another character; use that as your teaching point. Ask your child: “Is what he said honest? Is it kind—how do you think the other character felt when he said that? Did he have to say that right then?”
Finally, once you’ve already introduced the concepts of Right Speech and you’ve created opportunities for your child to think about the questions in other scenarios, then you can take the last step of going through the questions with your child when he’s said something hurtful to someone else. Even then, however, you’ll likely want to wait until emotions have cooled so that you’ll be more likely to have a receptive audience in your child.
Review the episode with your child: “Was what you said honest? Was it kind? Was it necessary?” And, to help her truly learn from the experience, brainstorm ideas of how what was said could have been said better: “How could you have said that in a way that was more honest, kind, and useful?” Reviewing what happened and coming up with ways it could have gone down better will help engrain the lesson in your child’s mind and ideally help her make better choices in the future.
Teaching your child to use the three questions of Right Speech before he talks is no quick-fix. In fact, it may take years for a child to fully appreciate and apply them. However, aspects of these questions can be taught at almost any age, and starting now can help your child grow into an adult whose words are kind, true, and valued.
And if interactions between your kids and everyone else in your home improve in the process, well, all the better!