Speaking Mindfully with Young Children, by Stephen Spitalny

I have long thought it is important that we adults become mindful of the way we speak, and the words we speak. It is easy to experience the effect that someone’s tone has on us when we are spoken to. The words can seem innocuous and yet the message is received as scolding or judging.

This is worthy of consideration because the tone we add to our speech is indicative of how we are framing our experience. Hence, the way we think about interactions deserves our attention. In fact, it is all about attention. When we observe something, and inwardly judge what we have observed, our attention is elsewhere and our habits in thinking have taken over. Do we frame experience in terms of fault and blame? Do we think about what someone ‘should have done?’ These are thought habits that deserve our attention so that we can begin to transform our thinking, our framing of experience, because that underlies all of our communication.

The words we speak are equally deserving of our attention. When we are speaking in the presence of young children, we are the example, really the basis, for their development of language. This includes vocabulary, grammar, syntax and a relationship to the truth. There are a couple of phrases I would like to offer to elucidate what I am saying.

Let’s consider this situation. 3-year-old Stevie wants some ice cream. Daddy says ‘No, not before dinner.’ Stevie hits Daddy. And Daddy says, “We don’t hit here. We don’t hit in our family.” Hmmmm…Let’s think about Stevie’s experience. He hit Daddy, but Daddy said “We don’t hit here.” In psychology I think that is called cognitive dissonance because Stevie is experiencing contradictory statements about his experience. The truth is that Stevie did hit Daddy, and so there is hitting in this environment. It probably isn’t what you want, but hitting does happen here.

What if after Stevie hit Daddy, Daddy said, “I don’t want to be hit.” Or, “I don’t like hitting.” Those statements likely reflect the truth that lives in Daddy. In our world, I think it behooves us all to both speak truthfully, and to offer the example to the children of sharing our inner experience. “This is what is real for me. I don’t like hitting.”

Example number 2: It is mealtime. Mommy has been trying to create the rhythm of everyone sitting at the table until the meal is done for all. 5-year-old Sally ate all that she wanted and then got up to go play. Mommy said, “Sally, you may sit down.” Sally continued her search for something to play with and did not return to the table. Mommy was frustrated, and spoke again. This time her words were dripping with tone, frustration and, in fact, were a command to Sally to sit.

Let’s look inside this example. Sally hears the words, “You may sit down.” She processes the meaning to be, “I may sit down, or not. It is my choice.” That is what those words mean in the English language.
Mommy isn’t really offering a choice so perhaps a different phrase could be helpful. “I want you to sit down until all of us are finished.” Or, “You will sit down until we are done.” Those phrases seem more truthful in expressing what Mommy is trying to accomplish. And they are not confusing choice with requirement.

Anyway, these are just some brief thoughts to spark your own exploration of your choice of words and use of tone towards a practice of mindfulness that can bring more connection and harmony through communication.


Stephen Spitalny has taught at the Santa Cruz Waldorf School since 1990. He offers individual consulting, as well as lectures and courses for parents and teachers around the world.
He has given many courses at the Rudolf Steiner College in Fair Oaks, California and the Waldorf Institute of Southern California (WISC). He is a former board member of the Waldorf Early Child Association of North America (WECAN) and edited the WECAN newsletter Gateways for many years. Steve has written three books about young children, and he has written numerous articles for various journals and magazines and book collections. His work has been translated into several languages.

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