A Positive Spin

By Zach Mural

“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” – Peggy O’Mara

As a parent of three young children, I have to second-guess so many things I’ve said to my kids. Was I too tough? Not tough enough? Did I explain why something was or wasn’t important? And, what will what I say (and what they hear) sound like when replayed in their minds?


The good news for me and for anyone who works with or has children of their own is it’s almost never too late to change how we talk to kids. In the case of how our words influence a child’s inner voice, time and repetition matter; young minds tend to latch on to patterns and the things they hear the most. With that in mind, I want to share a few ideas we can all keep in mind during our interactions with young people.

Cautious Vs. Fearful
Keeping children safe in our programs should be our number-one priority. And the way we communicate our desire to kids that they stay safe can have a big impact about how they view risk and themselves in other situations.

Think about a child learning a new skill in any environment with inherent risks (pool, balance beam, ice rink, etc.). As adults we tend to say things like “be careful” and “don’t let go,” or even assist physically more than is needed in the name of safety. What we communicate when we do these things is that the activity or environment is one that should be feared and leads a participant to question the ability to succeed and limits a desire for future participation.

Now, think about the same child and the setting, but this time the adult says things like “nice job” and “way to use two hands,” and allows the child opportunities to fail (again, in a safe manner) and encourages the child to try again until ultimately successful. In this circumstance, the adult is communicating that the activity and environment are engaging or challenging, and that the child can expect to succeed through hard work.

Something else to keep in mind is that, for several reasons, adults tend to use cautionary or restrictive language/actions with girls much more regularly than with boys. This difference is often noted by children of either sex and can undoubtedly contribute to perceptions about what activities are appropriate/what abilities both sexes have.

A Difference In Semantics
An individual’s perception is the base of reality, and as I have written in these pages before, people are good at recognizing and internalizing patterns. With that in mind, when adults (however well meaning) regularly tell kids to “stop doing that,” say “no,” or remind/reiterate what not to do, two things happen simultaneously.

First, young people start to view the adult as someone who isn’t any fun, or as a “stick in the mud.” Too much “stop,” “no,” and “don’t” can also lead children to those two words that every adult dreads: “I’m bored.” The main problem in both cases is that it makes having a good relationship between youth and adult extremely challenging. And, without strong and positive relationships, it is difficult to have the outcomes we all want for our programs.

Second, and even more importantly, kids who hear “stop,” “no,” and “don’t” more than “go,” “yes,” and “do” are more likely to view the world as a dangerous or unwelcoming place. Conversely, when youth hear more positive language, they are more likely to persist through challenges, try tougher tasks, and generally feel more positive about their place in the world.

The Catch
First, many of us at some time or another have heard more negative language than positive. As adults, if we are being honest, our inner voice often expresses thoughts that are fearful, negative, or concerned about things that do not really warrant that type of thought. As a result, it can be a challenge to change the way we speak to children. While there is no easy fix, being aware is the first step. And, like any behavior that we are trying to change, patience, persistence, and a willingness to look past setbacks are the keys to succeeding.

The second challenge, and again probably the more significant issue, is that in the parks and rec field (and I would even argue larger youth-development field), negative language is the norm because of the need to keep children safe, a lack of training opportunities, and at times challenging adult/child ratios. And, just like making personal changes is difficult, addressing those three issues can at times feel like an insurmountable task.

Now What?
So, what can we do? Again, the start is awareness and identifying the obstacles to change within your organization. Are there rules, policies, or procedures that are overly limiting? Certainly, no one wants to increase risk in programs, but at the same time, is it possible to be too careful in some situations?

In terms of training, while you likely cannot add payroll hours (or have the resources to pay for large training opportunities), a simple discussion or demonstration at a staff meeting is a great place to start. Spend some time observing staff members and tally the number of times you hear positive vs. negative words. Obviously, you want to share these observations with staff members individually or as anonymous data points in a group setting, but sometimes just being aware of how we talk can lead to a desire to make changes.

Finally, a good idea is thinking about what can be done to limit the urgent need to change behaviors (and the need for a “stop”) by having more adults available to assist and support programs. Recruiting and utilizing volunteers, combining programs, or even asking parents to play a more active role in their own child’s programs can all work to address this challenge.

Regardless of the reasons any of us default to more negative language, we can start to make changes by becoming more aware of the issue and ramifications. As I have said before, change is hard and takes time, but if we really want programs to support the development of physically and mentally healthy youth, then we need to do all that we can to make sure their inner voice is as confident about their potential as we are.

Dr. Zachary Mural is an executive-level leader, youth-development professional, and father. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, is the owner of Youth Development Consulting, is VP of Education for The Minnieland Academy Family of Schools in Northern Virginia, and is an ExpertOnlineTraining faculty member. If you have questions or comments, or would like to discuss a possible workshop or training, visit Youthdevelopmentconsulting.com.