The Art of the Parent Talk: How Children Learn From Speech
Children look to their parents for guidance about how to live, but they don't always ask for this advice. They observe their parents, watching and listening to their actions and reactions and, in doing so, unconsciously taking mental notes from those observations. So when parents speak negatively to or about each other around their children, the children will notice regardless of whether or not that was their parents' intention.
The way that parents talk to and around their children can have a substantial impact on their emotional well-being as well as their behaviour. So how does observing their parents' speech influence children, and what are some of the things that they learn from it?
Learning Through Imitation
From the time they are only a few months old, children are very observant. As early as eight months old, a child may begin imitating actions and expressions that they have observed in others. As the child grows, their imitations expand to repeating words and phrases that the people around them are saying.
Listening to their parents talk is bound to have a significant influence on a young child's development, yet it can have a continual impact even as the child grows up. A child who listens to one parent badmouthing their other parent may feel bad about what they've heard, but they also may be lead to believe that it's okay to say mean-spirited things about others because one of their parents was doing it. It could result in problems at school, with friends, or with other adults they encounter. It could also lead to confusion if they're being told not to speak like that by one parent or other adults yet continue observing this behaviour at home.
Influence on Self-Esteem
As children are imitating their parents' words and behaviours, they are also learning about self-esteem. Building a sense of self-esteem is important for children, as it can impact many different aspects of their lives. This includes in making friends and building relationships, performing well academically, succeeding in tasks they undertake, and much more.
While some might think that self-esteem comes naturally to many children, their environment can majorly influence their sense of confidence which includes the way in which their parents speak in their presence. When parents engage in negative talk about each other or other people in front of their children, this could bring their children down and weaken their sense of confidence. For instance, a child who hears one of their parents complaining about different traits their co-parent has is upsetting to the child. Later, if that child is doing something which leads their parent to comment on how they are acting so much like their other parent, this could be confusing and even upsetting, decreasing their self-esteem.
Understanding the Art of Parent Talk
As a parent, it's important to recognise the impact that your speech has on your child and take measures to ensure you're teaching the lessons you want your child to learn. Consider the level of conflict that your child is exposed to in the way you talk. Choose language that isn't over overtly offensive or could give your child the wrong idea if they are listening to you.
Also, think about your actions and behaviour when around your child. Is your current attitude one that you'd be okay seeing your child take on? Keep in mind that your child is prone to imitate your behaviour. Try to always behave positively for your child to emulate, even if you're feeling annoyed, angry or frustrated. If you're having trouble keeping your attitude in check sometimes, look for ways to help you cope with that negativity and turn your behaviour around for the better.
As parents, talking to your children is essential for their development, yet the way you do so is just as important. Take care to express yourself the way in which you want your child to observe you. Keep in mind how observant they are and how they will imitate your words and actions. The influence you have now will stick with them well into the future, so do all you can to be a positive influence.