Eight years ago, I wrote this, and it’s still true today. I’ve updated this post to revise towards clarity.
What puzzled me at the time was a certain hubbub about banning words. Such-and-such a word will make children feel bad. It could affect their future success. Or, others argued, that same word could empower them, embolden them to forge ahead.
People seemed conflicted about the effects of a certain word because the same word could be interpreted differently depending on circumstance and individual.
Who knows? To be honest, eight years later, I couldn’t even recall WHAT word was in question! I had to look it up. The word was (if you can believe it): Bossy. Yes, folks, remember a time when the worst possible thing we could say was, “You’re bossy.” Oh the good ol’ days!
Yet, here we are still in the midst of “cancel culture” on all sides, and it feels like the same conversation.
What will really put out the fire?
I agree with the premise of being careful with words. As a wordsmith, I know my words have power to harm or heal. I am not always as careful as I know I should be.
But banning a word isn’t what protects a child’s self-esteem (or heals grown-up wounds). If that were the answer, we could just take a vow of silence and be done with it! (I jest!). But banning things has never been the answer.
Because extinguishing a word doesn’t put out the fire we can start in other ways.
Ban one word and pretty soon you’ll have to ban another and another. And all the while, the root of the problem hasn’t been addressed.
I am an advocate for growth mindset language. Yet, traditional self-esteem boosting is lacking. Here’s why:
Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Philippians 2:3
Constantly filling children with empty positive words solely to build their self-esteem only makes them look inward. It can lead to either self-absorption or people-pleasing.
I’d rather raise my family to look outward, looking for ways to put others before ourselves.
It’s not about rule-making
All I have to do is look at my own children to see this played out.
My children have never said a “bad” word to each other. (Even 7 years later, this is true!). But plenty of “bad-sounding” vocalizations have flown between my two boys, (then, four years and 20 months, now 9 and nearly twelve).
Screeches over a snatched toy.
Wails of despair over a broken train track.
Harumphing over who get to read the Lord of the Rings book.
Stomping off over losing a game.
I could rush in and declare: “That’s it! No shouting over toys! We don’t say, ‘Mine!'” — And just like that, we have banned the word ‘Mine.’
But I’d spend my entire day being The Enforcer of this new rule, and my boys would continue to vie to be THE ONE with the coveted toy.
I can dictate outward calm, but strife would bubble under the surface. In their hearts, a silent cry would be echoing, “Mine. mine. mine.”
It’s in my heart, too, and if you’re honest, you probably hear that whisper in yours as well.
Because it’s not about rule-making. It’s about heart-shaping.
Because I can change their vocabulary but it takes more than a rule to change the language they speak with their hearts.
Love is a struggle
Let’s face it… it’s not easy to love each other. Why? Because inevitably we come face to face with someone just like us: flawed.
“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” – Fred Rogers, born March 21, 1928.
When my son watches his younger brother snatch a train from the tracks, he looks and sees someone just like him: someone who WANTS THAT just like he does. It’s not easy to give up what we want so someone else can have… what WE want.
Because the second (great) commandment continues to elude all of us. Because morality without the transforming power of the Gospel is empty.
If love came easy, would Christ have to command it? If we spend too much time worrying that we aren’t loved, we will have no time or energy left to pour out love to one another.
Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Matthew 22:37-39
It’s not easy to accept that person is just as selfish as we are, because that would mean admitting our own selfishness. It’s a struggle to love the flawed. And yet, we must love them.
Thank the Lord, Christ Jesus did exactly that for us. For millennia, the law precisely laid out: “Don’t do this. Do that.” And no one could measure up.
Then Jesus came down, came alongside us. He taught us how to live, how to love. He gave us Life, and not just – but Life More Abundant.
He came and laid down HIS life to give us Life.
It’s not about micro-managing
I’ll take Christ’s sacrifice as my model for parenting. Parenting is not about micro-managing the rules. It’s about teaching little hearts to crave Life More Abundant.
We can’t just throw down the gauntlet to kids: “Don’t say that, or else.” and expect peace. (Trust me, when I do this, I see it nearly immediately reflected in how our oldest starts commanding his brother around. It hurts hearing my own words coming out in his imperious little voice. I may not have SAID it the way he does, but he got my “message” loud and clear.)
Of course, we have some rules. But just know, rules aren’t what changes hearts.
There’s nothing abundant in constantly trying to measure up and constantly falling short of “the rules.” It’s a scraping the bottom of the barrel kind of life. There is never enough. We should know that by now (none righteous, remember?).
Instead of playing enforcer and exhausting ourselves, we can come alongside our little ones. We can show them the life and love of Christ. We can model what loving words sound like. We can emphasize generosity over grasping.
Before we set rules, let’s set examples.
What does “second commandment parenting” look like?
Depending on the circumstances, setting a loving example can look like so many different things:
- It’s not catering to one child’s whims over another’s.
- It’s not forcing a begrudging child to share, while they slide all that selfish rage deep down inside to resurface when Mommy isn’t looking.
- It’s not telling them they have to be a doormat and hand over the toys any time another child grabs them.
- It’s teaching them to be firm, to stand up for themselves if needed
- It’s teaching them to be generous.
- To not let things matter more than relationships.
It might sound like:
- “You like my truck? You can have a turn for a bit.”
- “I was still playing with that toy, but you can play with this one.”
- “You’d like to play trains too? Here’s some for you.”
- “I wasn’t done playing with that train. May I have it back?” (I kid you not, our twenty-month-old always handed over the toy when asked like this! ALWAYS. And usually hands over any other toy he was holding as well!).
We need a better way to love
We can’t just empty the earth of words that might hurt. There’s unfortunately no end to the ways humanity can be cruel. What we can do is empty ourselves of US.
We can create a thousand laws about what NOT to do. We need a better way to love. This better way is to show the ONE law of kindness. Teach our children what TO do.
We can fill little hearts up with the the Love of Christ. Fill them up with grace. Surround them with loving examples of how to talk to and about others.
Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh. Matthew 12:34
She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness. Proverbs 31:26
Salvation didn’t come until Christ poured Himself out for us. Yes, as a man, He prayed for that cup to pass from Him. Giving selflessly is never an easy task.
Loving can be a struggle… so can second commandment parenting! We must give our children the words and examples for how to win at loving.
There’s a look of satisfaction on our oldest son’s face when he lets go of that train and gives it to his younger brother. I know it wasn’t what he wanted to do, but he is NEVER unhappy once he wins that struggle.
Because 2,000 years later, we’re still learning to love one another. We’ve still not figured out that our joy won’t be full until we fill someone else up first.
But when we do, a surprising thing happens then: By filling others up, we can be filled.
I pray our children will be filled with abundant words. Life-giving words. Love-working words.
How have you filled up your little ones today?