When I was a kid, I was taught this little rhyme as a way of dealing with mean people: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
You probably know it, too. And I’m sure you also know it’s a BIG FAT LIE. Words come and go so quickly we assume they bounce right off, leaving little or no effect on the person they were aimed at. But it’s simply not true. We’ve all had something said to us we’ll never forget. Something that started out more like a prick to the finger, but festered into a whole body infection.
When I was little, I had an overbite the size of Texas. (No, I’m really not exaggerating.) You could see it from a mile away and it never once went unnoticed by another kid in school. I would have done anything to fix it, but of course, not much could be done until I got braces in middle school.
The names people called me over those silly teeth haunted me well into adulthood even though I haven’t had “buck teeth” since I was 12. You see, that little rhyme should go a little more like this…
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words WILL ALWAYS hurt me.”
When someone says something unkind or unloving to us, it’s very difficult to forget. When someone lashes out in anger, we find ourselves flashing back over the scene in our mind even years later. As Christians we are called to forgive, but that doesn’t always erase the power of the words said to us. Nor does it erase the power of the words we say to others.
The Bible doesn’t say much about sticks and stones, but it says a lot about words. Our tongue carries with it tremendous power and impact. What we say really matters, not just to God, it matters to those around us. And you know what? Our tongue even has a powerful impact on our own life.
I tell my kids this story often because I want to drive home one very important fact: The things we say have the potential to either HARM or HELP.
We get to choose which one it will be. I wish I could say that as adults we usually grow up and manage to control our mouth, but you and I both know that isn’t true. Perhaps most of us no longer go around calling people names because of their appearance, but we still spill unkind, unthoughtful, and selfish words all over the place.
This issue of words is a BIG deal. It takes intentional training and a lot of practice to control our tongue the way God calls us to. I’d argue that, as parents, this intentional training is one of our most important jobs. So let’s dig in to some practical ways to teach kids what they need to know about controlling their tongue. You might find a thing or two that works for grown-ups, too.
Control Your Tongue: 5 Strategies to Teach your Kids
1. Cover your mouth
I’m starting with this one because it’s the first one I teach my kids. When they start talking ugly, I simply say, “Cover your mouth until you can keep it from saying ugly words.” This goes for disrespectful words said to adults just as much as unkind things said to siblings. The physical barrier to help a child know their words must stop is the first step in helping them control what they say.
It also works no matter how old your child is. Even a 2-year-old can cover his mouth. He may not quite understand the harm of his words at that age, but he will grasp that the things he said were not ok.
I think sometimes as Americans we can get caught up in “freedom of speech” so much we forget that, as Christians, we are not at all free to say whatever we wish. Proverbs 21:23 says, “Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.” It’s a GOOD thing to restrict your speech, so cover your mouth!
2. THINK before you speak
Once you’ve mastered the mouth-covering strategy, it’s time to decide whether or not something needs to be said. Probably one of the most important things we all need to understand is NOT everything needs to be said!
There’s an acronym I’ve been teaching my kids for years to help them THINK before they speak. We memorize what each letter means and we evaluate whether or not we really need to say something. Each question is a great reminder of the qualifications for the things that come out of our mouth. If it’s not true, helpful, inspiring, necessary, or kind, it’s safe to say we should keep our mouth closed!
This works before you speak, but we also use it after something ugly has been said. Often I can say, “Did you THINK before you said that?” The offending child will usually respond by telling me which one of the reasons he failed to consider before speaking.
Of course, don’t think for a second you’ll master this by just teaching the acronym. You’ll need to post it on the wall, practice it over and over again, and remind your kids to use it. But I promise, just like all of our other efforts as parents, the hard work does eventually pay off.
3. Dealing with your feelings
When my son was four, he nearly mauled a boy to death in the Chick-fil-A playground. It happened a few months after his dad moved out and was clearly an out-lashing of anger. Trouble was, as a woman, I hadn’t personally experienced this kind of anger and I didn’t know how to help him. If he was hurting from what had happened with his dad, how did he figure punching and scratching a boy he didn’t know would help that?
After spending many hours with a grief counselor, I began to see something we often miss as parents. Kids don’t know how to process their feelings and they often don’t even know how they feel. They need us to help them come up with ways to do this. I was recently reminded of this truth when my other son began struggling with his feelings regarding the chemo treatments he’s been having.
The grief counselor working with him taught him to close his eyes and pretend to punch marshmallows when the pain became more than he could bear. Sounds silly, but he loves it. And it works.
Over the years, we’ve tried all kinds of things to deal with our feelings–from taking a bath to going for a walk, drawing a picture, and yes, imagining we are punching marshmallows. The key is to help kids understand what they are feeling and what options they have for dealing with those feelings.
Oh, and DON’T ASSUME your child can define their feelings. They probably can’t. Consider making a list of feelings to choose from or playing a game to help them understand what each feeling really means. (We love this Feelings Jenga game.)
4. Tell it to your pillow
Once I’ve made sure to help my kids understand their feelings, the next thing I teach them is the pillow trick. When you feel frustrated, angry, annoyed, or upset with someone, first go to your room and tell your pillow. I literally tell them to muffle their mouth (not the nose) with the pillow and let it all out. (Disclaimer: don’t teach this to kids who are too young to understand how to keep the pillow from suffocating them. We don’t want them plugging their nose and mouth!)
This is one of the best strategies even though it sounds silly. In fact, you as a parent should try it. Here’s why it works: As soon as those ugly words come out of your mouth, they suddenly sound awful. You and I both know this happens when you say ugly things to the people you love. So instead, say it to the pillow first to make sure you really should be saying it. Most of the time, you’ll be convicted over how awful it really is and you won’t end up sharing it with a real person after all.
5. Practice what you’ll say
Have you ever noticed your kids say the same kinds of things over and over again? I have one kid who is horribly bossy. I have another who literally replies to every admonition with, “I know I’m stupid.” Both of these kinds of speech are harmful and unacceptable in my house, but they come up literally every single day.
Instead of giving up in frustration, spend some time with your child, role playing the situation. Help them come up with new things to say instead of the thing they always fall back on. Even better, give them specific Scripture to memorize to help them beat it.
This is a great tool we can offer our kids. Often, people give up on themselves and assume they can’t change. That’s a lie! With the help of the Holy Spirit, any awful habit can be reversed. We just need to rewrite the script that our kids have learned to go to.
It doesn’t hurt to use this tactic in new situations, too. We role play what to do if an adult asks you to do something that is wrong, even though it’s never happened. Especially if your kids are in a school or classroom type setting, it would be wise to role play what to do when a kid calls them a name or says something else mean. They could role play what to do if someone takes their pencil or makes them mad.
Practicing gives your kids the tools they need to control their tongue no matter what situation arises, planned or unplanned.
Understand God’s truth and ask God to help you.
I didn’t make this one of the 5 strategies because this one is the foundation for them all. When I was 23, I had a miscarriage. I remember lying in the hospital bed next to a woman who was sobbing uncontrollably. I felt so sad for her hopelessness. Don’t get me wrong, I was definitely sad as I greatly desired that baby, but I knew God was bigger than this disappointment in my life. Because I knew I could trust Him, I had hope and motivation to keep pressing on.
When it comes to controlling our mouth, the job is exhausting, difficult, and often our efforts are unnoticed. We need the hope and motivation only God offers as we tackle this issue. In fact, I don’t see any reason to bother controlling your mouth unless you are aiming to please the Lord.
As you help your kids, be sure you are helping them understand God’s truth on this topic. Study what the Bible has to say about the power of our words. Help them pray and ask God for wisdom, discernment, and self-control.
To help my own kids with this, I’ve developed a Bible study on the power of words. I’d love for you to join us, too. First, we will explore the power our tongue has–to do both good and evil. In weeks 2 & 3, we will explore 10 positive effects of controlling our tongue, called FRUITS. Finally, we will learn simple ways to remember all we’ve learned and tame our tongue even when it’s hard to say the right things.
If you’d love to have this resource too, grab a copy here.