October 20, 2016

Say What I Mean or Mean What I Say?

My office on our South Campus sits above Friends’ preschool. As I pass through the building, and as I listen to joyful laughter out my window, I hear and see many of the wonderful things that happen in our preschool every day.

One day, I overheard one of our preschool teachers saying to her class of three year olds:

“Before we go outside, let’s see if anyone needs to go to the bathroom.”

One little boy followed the directions to the letter.  He pulled open the front of his sweatpants to literally ‘see’ if he needed to go.

“Nope”, he assured his teacher.  He was fine.  Ready to run outside and play.

I love this story because it highlights so beautifully the importance of language.  As a linguistics major at the University of York in England, I learned that language matters. As I’ve navigated the sometimes sensational, occasionally tricky waters, of adulthood how well I learn this lesson continues to impact my life in meaningful ways.

Learning to use language well is more than just learning to speak in front of others or telling someone what you want or winning an argument. Effective communication is the backbone that elevates our lives. It determines the quality of our relationships, how well we do at work, the balance we experience and the ease and confidence with which we move in our world.

In our preschool, our experienced and highly trained teachers continually encourage their young students to use language well.  They model how to express ones’ needs.  They encourage children to say thank you.  They emphasize the positive by telling children what they can do rather than telling them what they cannot do.  Instead of saying, “Don’t do that!”, they say, “Here’s what you can do instead.”

Our teachers have learned that too much praise is not effective.  Instead of the relatively meaningless “Good job!”, they focus on telling children what they notice that they admire.  “I notice you’ve been working for a long time.”  “I notice all the bright blue in your painting.” Generic praise of kids fosters a dependence on praise and leads to them feeling less secure.  (For an excellent article that goes into this concept in more depth, please read Alfie Kohn’s Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!”)

I met with one of our elementary parents recently whose children had both gone through Friends’ preschool. As she was extolling the virtues of the preschool teachers, she said to me something along the lines of “If everyone spoke using the language learned at Friends’ preschool, a lot of marriages could be saved.” 

Or, as Lewis Carroll wrote in the fifth grade play I directed last year, Alice in Wonderland: Then you should say what you mean,' the March Hare went on. 'I do,' Alice hastily replied; 'at least, — at least I mean what I say — that's the same thing, you know.”

(A version of this column appeared in different form in Among Friends' in 2012.)

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