Monday, June 25, 2012

Don’t Use Your Words

A Guest Post by Sarah MacLaughlin, Holistic Moms Network member and author of the award-winning book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children.

"Use your words,” is an oft-repeated request in U.S. households and schools these days. Maybe it is a step up from yelling “Stop hitting your sister/friend,” but it’s probably not the most effective route if you want to teach conflict resolution skills and emotional literacy. More on that later. First, a little about how you, as the grown-up, can improve your communication skills with less words. A forty year-old study by Dr. Albert Mehrabian showed that much of communication is nonverbal. That’s certainly worth paying attention to!

So try not using your words. And don’t ask children to use them either. You first—here’s a few ideas for responding to children without any words at all.

Use your body. When you are working with young children, keep in mind how much smaller and shorter than you they are. My motto has always been: “Get low and stay low.” You can also use your physical self to stop problems before or as they are happening. Step between the children who are in conflict, crouch down and make eye contact with each one. Place your hand on a child’s shoulder to keep them from careening toward another. Cup your hand between the biter and the one about to receive.

Use body language and facial expression. Sometimes we overworked and stressed-out grown-ups don’t keep tabs on our facial and body language. Thinking about our own problems can leave us with arms crossed and a grimace on our face—and we don’t even know it! Stay mindful of what your expression might look like. Children often interpret a furrowed brow or blank face as an angry one. Keeping your body relaxed and a smile on your face may be the easiest invitation for cooperation you’ve got! You can also send a quick message by shrugging shoulders or putting up your hand in a “stop” gesture.

Use touch. In our litigious society, we have become very “hand-off,” and not necessarily to the benefit of our young ones. While children should be taught the difference between good, bad, and scary touch, they should not be left untouched. A pat on the shoulder, a hug, or rub on the back can convey understanding and encouragement. It is, however, best practice to ask first if you are working with, or taking care of, children that are not your own.

A last tip from Dr. Mehrabian is to pay attention to your tone. While words alone have the least impact, the clearest message can be sent and received when our tone, body language and words, all match. This means that you shouldn’t add a question mark, or even a questioning tone to a directive statement. Refraining from using sarcasm is also a good idea. Kids don’t get it and it can be quite insulting. Try to aim for a warm, engaging tone. When you need an authoritative or attention-getting tone for safety purposes, it will have more impact if it has not already been well used.

And why not ask a child to “use their words?” First of all, it’s become a pat statement, much like, “good job.” It’s just not specific enough. Plus, it doesn’t honor the fact that she would be using her words if she was capable of doing so. Typically children are hitting, or grabbing, or yanking in the scenario where you request words. Please assume that if they had it in them to share their feelings verbally, ask before taking, or ask for a turn, they would have already done so. When they don’t, for whatever reason, it is a signal to you that they require guidance in this area. Offer this guidance kindly, and see what happens.

When you use your words, say, “I’m going to help keep everyone here safe,” “Looks like you want a turn, let’s ask your sister about that,” or “Please come back and check in with your friend.” Or use one of the nonverbal suggestions above. You won’t have to say a thing.


Special Giveaway!

Please comment on this post about using or not using your words with your child, so that you can enter to win an ebook copy of What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children, in the format of your choice: PDF, epub, or Kindle format. Sarah will be giving away one copy at each blog stop and will announce it on the comments of this post at the end of the week. (Other stops during this Blog Tour are listed on Sarah's blog here: Be sure to leave your email so we can contact you in case you're the winner!

Also, be sure to enter at Sarah's site ( for the Grand Prize Giveaway: a Kindle Touch. Winner will be announced at the end of the tour after July 15th.

About The Author

Sarah MacLaughlin has worked with children and families for over twenty years. With a background in early childhood education, she has previously been both a preschool teacher and nanny. Currently, Sarah works as a licensed social worker with foster families at The Opportunity Alliance in South Portland, Maine.

She also teaches parenting classes and consults with families. In addition, Sarah serves on the board of Birth Roots, a perinatal resource center, and writes the "Parenting Toolbox" column for a local parenting newspaper, Parent & Family.

As reflected in her book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children, Sarah considers it her life's work to promote happy, well-adjusted people by increasing awareness of how children are spoken to today.

In a busy modern life, while Sarah juggles her son, her job, her husband, her family, and time for herself, she's also aiming for: mindful parenting, meaningful work, joyful marriage, connected family, and radical self-care. She is mom to a young son who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice about What Not to Say. More information about Sarah and her work can be found at


  1. This is a good reminder! Thanks for the opportunity!

  2. I am totally agree with your tips thank you for post..

    Keeping In Touch

  3. I would love to do a how on this! Good stuff

  4. Congratulations Heather - you are the winner! We will email you the appropriate contact information shortly!


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