Talking to children is a pretty active sport. It involves so much more than the content being conveyed. When an adult names a child “a great poet” or “mathematical wiz” the chances of those traits becoming part of the child’s identity go up. Why? Because an adult’s choice of words is powerful. Words shape children’s perception of themselves, and offers important information about the nature of the adult-child relationship.
What we say to children reflects what we think of them. If we expect them to have insights and opinions about their experience, we will speak to them in a manner that invites dialog. If we want to empower them, we will ask questions that foster personal agency and control – “How did you do that?” “What made you come up with that idea?” “Can you show me how it works?”
The right choice of words creates an environment where children tell stories in which they are powerful protagonists. With each story told they grow more certain of their ability to meet everyday challenges. This self-confidence is an important resource for all children, particularly those whose lives are stressful or filled with adversity. It encourages them to think strategically, and find new ways to solve problems. They become less likely to give up easily, and as a result often show marked improvement in academic tasks.
For more information about how to arrange for children to tell you stories of personal agency and control, check out the book Choice Words by Peter Johnston (2004). It’s a must read for anyone working in trauma-sensitive schools.