There is profound benefit in becoming more aware of what you say to your kids. Awareness gives you the choice to say something else, and therein lies the power. Awareness creates the opportunity for different conversations—conversations that open the door to more special moments with your children.

Calvin: Sometimes when I’m talking, my words can’t keep up with my thoughts. I wonder why we think faster than we speak.

Hobbes: Probably so we can think twice.

—Bill Watterson, Calvin & Hobbes

Think before you speak

Five questions to explore

Although everyone grows up knowing the basics of how to speak and listen, day-in and day-out many people simply don’t think about their conversations—about what they say or how well they listen. And, like most things in life, when you stop thinking about what you are doing or saying, you lose your ability to be effective in the moment.

Simply noticing the negative comments in your conversations with your kids is a perfect way to start. If you replace the negative conversations with conversations that are more empowering, wonderful changes can occur. As you observe your conversations, you’ll begin to notice, and the minute you notice, you can decide to change. Yankees catcher Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” That may seem simple, but it works.

As you start looking, ask yourself these five questions, and the answers will reveal ways you can start to improve the conversations you have with your kids.

  1. What would your children say they hear from you most often? What are the things you say or ask several times a week? Or, in the deeper sense, what are the conversations that dominate your relationship?
  2. How do you respond to problems? What are typical problems that come up in your family, and how do the conversations go when these situations occur? For example, if your son brings home a report card with all A’s except for one B-minus, what will he hear? The typical reaction might be something like, What are you going to do to get that B-minus up? Or, if your daughter plays a wonderful soccer game, scores a goal, and helps her team win—but is out of ­position a couple of times—what will she hear?
  3. What do you want your children to learn from you? What do you want them to learn about life and about how to deal with the world? Once when I was complaining about not catching any fish, my dad simply replied, “If you want to catch fish, you’ve got to put in your time.” These days the catch phrase for this notion is deliberate practice. Whatever you call it, Dad’s words have been a wonderful reminder that I must do the work required to master something.
  4. What do you want your kids to think about themselves? What qualities and characteristics do you want to reinforce? Consider the self-fulfilling prophesy—the notion that what you believe influences your actions. With our kids, this means that if you see something partially expressed by your children and you acknowledge it, it will continue to develop and flourish. Since what you focus on gets bigger, you want to focus on the good stuff—to catch them doing something right.”
  5. What do you want your kids to know about you? Consider sharing more about yourself, your childhood, your memories, what matters to you, what you worry about. Sharing things about yourself throughout your children’s lives lets them know you both as a person and as a parent.

When you think before you speak, you actually have the opportunity to make a conscious choice about what you want your kids to hear from you. When you reflect on the conversations that you are either having or not having, you can decide to change the pattern of conversations in your family. You have a chance to start fresh and make what you say and how you say it much more meaningful and effective.