Today I’m talking about why your tone of voice matters in parenting. Maybe more than almost anything else. Stick with me to see if you agree!
I still remember the challenges first year of having a child: everything is new, everything is startling, anything could be some kind of emergency. At least, that’s the way it feels.
The baby cries. WHY IS HE CRYING?
The baby spits up. IS THAT TOO MUCH SPIT UP? OR JUST ENOUGH? IS IT SUPPOSED TO BE THAT COLOR?
The baby poops. WHY IS IT YELLOW? WHY SO MUCH POOP?
The baby seems extra fussy one night. IS IT TEETHING? PURPLE CRYING SYNDROME? COLIC? FOOD ALLERGY?
The baby is gassy. DO I HAVE TO STOP EATING CHEESE? (Please, God, say no.)
All the things are new and I know I found myself constantly paging through The Baby Book (an affiliate link for my favorite baby book!) to see what was “normal.” I called mom friends. I panicked, but usually only slightly. It was exhausting.
It was also so much more amazing than I could have imagined. I never really dreamed of being a mom, you see. For years I thought I wouldn’t have kids even if I got married. So the joy and ease of motherhood surprised me. I loved it, even while it was hard and scary and kept me on my toes.
One of the things I really never did was yell or speak harshly. I remember thinking, “Okay, so it’s hard but I’ve GOT this parenting thing.” Sure, there were hard times, but I felt like I kept my cool and, for the majority of the time, just enjoyed the heck out of my kid.
Then I had another son. And a daughter. And another daughter about a year later. (Surprise!) And now I’m pregnant and four crazy/amazing kids running around like Pokemon and I can’t catch ’em all. Not remotely.
And now, there is yelling. There is harsh talking. The LOUD talking.
In fact, much of the time I feel more like a drill sergeant than a mom, constantly barking out orders.
Everyone get your shoes on.
Get your shoes on.
Get YOUR shoes on.
Get your SHOES on.
Get your shoes ON.
GET YOUR SHOES ON!
[Five minutes later, in the car a mile from our house]
WHERE ARE YOUR SHOES?!?!
It feels terrible. And also necessary sometimes, because to get four kids even in a non-moving vehicle feels like a feat of nature. Getting them in a non-moving vehicle with all their shoes and pants on? Miraculous. Nothing short of. (Seriously. Today I got in the car and realized two out of four had no pants. Zero out of four had shoes. I’m living in what amounts to a half-nudist colony.)
If I don’t get drill-sergeant-y, would we ever get ANYWHERE? With or without pants?
But it feels TERRIBLE. I hate the sound of my voice.
I want to get my kids in the car with pants on, but I don’t want to sacrifice relationships for it. Or lose my soul, which is how it sometimes feels, especially when I move past firmness into anger. So, what do I do?
Better Than Talking to Your Dog
Back when Rob and I were dating, I remember having dinner with a couple who was married with kids. Dinner was fine, but after we left their house, I said to Rob, “I never want to talk to our dog in a nicer way than you.” Because, literally, the husband and wife talked more kindly to the dog than each other. That was not the only time I’ve seen people talking sharply to a spouse or child and then going right into that pet-talk for a dog or cat. Have you ever witnessed this?
When we have been living with people day after day, our guard goes down. Our words become less filtered. They just kind of come out. The kindness that we don’t have to work hard at when we are newly dating or have a new baby evaporates over time. It’s not easy anymore. Or new. We get too comfortable in our speech. And I don’t think this is a good thing.
We should talk to people—ALL PEOPLE—more kindly than we talk to our pets. This may sound silly, but I be you’re going to think of me the next time you sweet-talk your adorable pup.
Deescalating a Situation
I’ve realized lately with my kids how much of a difference it makes if I ask them to do something or to stop doing something in a cheerful but firm tone rather than what has become the sharp, bark-y orders I often give. My kids respond more quickly. They dig in their heels less. We don’t escalate into conflict so quickly.
Contrast this with the times that I speak more quickly, more sharply, and the reaction is tears or a sharp response back (especially with my older two). They get louder. I get louder. They get louder. I get louder. And suddenly not picking up dirty clothes from the bathroom floor has blown up into World War III.
Tone of voice doesn’t solve all problems. But it does deescalate and sometimes prevents problems. If I can calm myself, my kids often stay more calm. (I love this post talking about calm as contagious!) Rather than ramping up a situation, my tone of voice can calm things down.
This isn’t always true, of course, because there are no parenting formulas. Many times even in the last week I have talked firmly and kindly while a three-year-old continues to shout at me that YES, I CAN GET THE BACKBPACK UNDER THE SEAT while also driving my car on the highway at 70mph. My tone of voice did nothing to deescalate that situation.
One of the biggest downsides to our tone of voice is the shame it can produce in our kids. When we are shocked by their bad behavior or show our frustration or shake our heads and what they’ve done or tell them we are disappointed—we are invoking shame. And shame is not a good thing.
Understanding when they have done something wrong? Good. Healthy guilt that teaches them to make good decisions? Good. Shame that makes them think they are unlovable because of their actions? Very, VERY bad.
When I speak kindly to my kids, I don’t stir up shame. I can still address behaviors that need correction or tell them to get their shoes (and pants) on without making my children feel small.
Recently Sawyer came to me after a particularly difficult bedtime and said, “I’m sorry I disappointed you, Mommy.”
This killed me. So I said, “Sawyer, you didn’t disappoint me. You disobeyed me. Do you see the difference? I love you no matter what. But I also need you to obey me. You didn’t disappoint me.”
There is a difference between our kids feeling like they disappointed us and knowing they disobeyed us. Shame plays into that difference. Our tone of voice and the words we choose also play into that difference. I want to be sure I make the distinction and talk to my kids kindly even when they are disobeying. It’s possible to be firm AND kind. Not easy (especially when you are having one of those no-one-napped-and-everyone-is-terrible days), but possible. This is my goal.
(Also note, there may be a time and place to talk about disappointment and our kids in a real, loving way. But it’s certainly not over the kinds of small potatoes we generally deal with on a weekly basis.)
Why Your Tone of Voice Matters More Than Your Words
All day long as parents, we make choices. We make big choices and small choices. What we should wear, what activities we will be doing, whether to shop at HEB or Kroger. Sometimes we don’t think about the consequences of these choices because often they don’t matter. Does it matter if I wear the black maternity top today or the OTHER black maternity top? Nope.
But one choice we have over and over and over each day every day is how we talk to our kids. We choose our words too and those words matter. Our words can speak life to our kids. But especially in the times where we are dealing with discipline or even just trying to get everyone around the dinner table at the same time, the HOW matters more than the what.
Making this choices takes a lot more effort on my part. Not that I always speak harshly to my kids. But my words are all too easily colored with how tired I am, with how loud the room is, with how frustrated I am that we are having to talk once again about not doing somersaults on the furniture.
I’m a work in progress, but this is one BIG, little switch I want to make. It seems both big and little, doesn’t it? So easy and yet so hard. So small and yet SO significant. I can’t help but thinking that my tone of voice with my kids may be that piece that really makes ALL the difference in our relationship, both now and down the road. So I’m not perfect, but I’ll keep progressing!
Do you struggle with your tone of voice? Have you seen how this can affect your kiddos and home dynamic? Leave a comment so we can talk this out.
If this is your struggle too, I’m right there with you.
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