“Argh! Why am I such an idiot?!” my husband asks, seething at his burned chicken on the stove. I cringe visibly. “I know,” he says. “Sorry.” He knows the kids can hear him, but it’s hard for him to overcome the instinct to self-flagellate when he’s frustrated.
My husband and I have talked a lot over the years about the power of words, and about the way we speak about ourselves and others, especially in front of our children. His tendency to call himself names when he makes a mistake is a carryover from hearing regular criticism as a child — not necessarily directed at him, but modeled in front of him. I have some of those same self-critical tendencies. Most of us do.
Unfortunately, kids listen, especially when we don’t want them to. And they learn to speak to themselves the way they hear us talk about ourselves and others — perhaps even more so than by the way we speak directly to them.
I remember watching an Oprah episode about a mother whose daughter struggled with body image issues. The mother was distraught because she had always told her daughter that she was beautiful, that her body was just as it should be. She never ever made any negative comments about her daughter’s shape or weight. But when the mom was asked how she viewed her own body, she called herself fat and ugly. Even though she was mindful of how she spoke to her daughter, she criticized her own appearance at home all the time. The daughter internalized her mother’s self-critical talk, despite always being told she was beautiful. That really stuck with me.
I don’t want my kids to constantly battle self-critical thoughts. I don’t want them to automatically beat themselves up over mistakes. I want them to be kind — to others and to themselves.
I don’t think we’re solely responsible for our kids’ self-talk or that we should walk on eggshells around them worrying about saying the wrong thing. But I have started trying to be cognizant of what I say around them and not just to them. If I say critical things about my body, my kids will think that’s okay to do, even if I tell them not to. If I call myself stupid or berate myself for making a mistake, they’re going to think that’s the norm, even if I’d never say those things to them directly.
It’s hard though. We live in an increasingly judgmental society, with more and more outlets for criticism to be expressed. It’s difficult not to let that negativity seep into our homes and into our speech. None of us is immune to critical thoughts, and it’s hard to resist venting them out loud. I guess it really comes down to being aware of the words we use, especially within earshot of our children.
I’ve found that trying to be mindful in this way has actually had some ancillary personal benefits. Catching myself and stopping self-critical words before they escape my mouth has forced me to be more positive, which affects practically every area of my life. I find that I’ve become more compassionate with myself and more patient with others’ faults. I recognize critical talk more readily and notice how it can bring down a room. Over time, I’ve noticed that even my automatic, silent self-talk has become less harsh.
I know there’s no guarantee that watching our words around our kids will make their inner world better. But I do think that words matter. I’ve seen the effects of kids being raised around criticism, and I’d rather err on the side of positivity than contribute to our children’s self-flogging. They’ll get enough exposure to negativity and judgment from the rest of the world for sure. I don’t want them to hear it from me.