01.06.2008 Relationships

Mind Your Language

Words can be "tools of magic" or a hurtful blow, says Nabila Cowasjee. And when we direct them at children, our responsibility is greatest of all.

"If you saw words as concrete and thoughts as tangible, would you let them drift and drizzle in dismal disarray? Unlikely indeed. There would be strict schools to teach you of their powerful projections or treacherous trajectories."
The Celestial Curriculum – Jagjit

It's a dark, damp winter morning. As I drop my son off to school I notice two children playing beneath a tree. They are delighting in chucking fallen gum nuts at each other, skipping around lightly, dodging nature's missiles; gleeful smiles on their faces. I hear the sturdy step of a teacher and before I can blink I hear her harsh, biting voice say: "Stop that silliness right now! Get back to the classroom and do something useful!"

Déjà vu: Memories of innocent classroom frivolity being nipped in the bud and being reprimanded for making suggestions beyond my call flood back and leave me as cold and bereft as the now sullen and deflated faces of those two girls.

Many of us grew up with our parents or grandparents telling us that sticks and stones may break our bones but words could never hurt us. Yet the imprint of words, judgment and labels received in childhood can have serious implications on the way we perceive ourselves and on our personal power for the rest of our lives.

Language plays a large and significant role in the totality of culture, the construction of society and the individual. It is not just a technique of communication but directs the perception of the speakers and listeners.Two anthropologists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, formulated a hypothesis whose central idea was that language functions not simply as a device for reporting experience but that it defines experience, powerfully conditions our thinking and is a guide to social reality. Sapir believed that people were at the mercy of the particular language to which they were exposed. To imagine that one adjusts to reality or constructs a sense of self without the use of language, or to think that it is merely an incidental means of solving specific communication, is an illusion:

"The fact of the matter is that the 'real world' is to a large extent
unconsciously built up on the language habits of a group
" - Sapir 1929

Whorf saw language as a vehicle through which one voiced ideas but, more importantly, was a shaper of ideas, a program and guide for an individual's mental activity. He believed that to think that talking was merely a method of expressing what one has to express, was too simplistic. He believed language had the power to construct and control thought and behaviour.

Language is not just an inventory of the varying items of experience relevant to the individual, but is also a self contained, creative symbolic organisation which refers to experience acquired and indeed defines it. Language affects the way we see ourselves and how we behave and the fact that we are exposed to it from birth is worth conjecture.

Language is used as a primary tool for the socialisation of children, for the passing on of social acceptance. The manner in which primary carers speak to children at various crucial developmental stages and their verbal response to emergent speech and independence have consequences.

A child is essentially a passive receiver of language for the better part of two years which puts them on the back foot. How we communicate (or don't) with them during this formative time, is crucial. They will construct an idea of themselves, and the world, from how we verbally engage with them. To ignore, speak cruelly or indifferently will affect their self esteem. A war of words is as harmful as a fist in the face and the suffering and life long damage children and adults endure as victims of verbal bullying cannot be underestimated.

Words that fall from our mouths which reach our children's ears, have the possibility of "blessing" or "cursing" their lives.

Just as a priest offers guidance and comfort in his congregational blessing, words that fall from our mouths which reach our children's ears, have the possibility of "blessing" or "cursing" their lives.

Take a moment to look back at your own life and see what messages you received as a child are still playing out today. Not all the judgments we fall prey to are detrimental. Personally, I have one clear childhood memory that is a continuing personal mantra. A Girl Guide leader I had once said to me, "In quietness and confidence is your strength". This short and unassuming sentence has had a huge impact for it made me value myself. All the other achievements, university degrees, travel experiences and social encounters have not had the power to make me feel as comfortable in my own skin as those few words have. This is the power of language.

In Don Miguel Ruiz's book ,The Four Agreements, he says:
"The word is the most powerful tool you have as a human; it is a tool of magic".

He talks of the life as a Dream, constructed by society which encompasses all the rules, beliefs, laws and ways of being. Ruiz writes about a concept he calls Domestication,which is an adherence to the rules and laws of those who came before us. This is socialisation in its broadest sense. He speaks of it lyrically as a process that hooks a child's attention by introducing rules into his or her mind. This outside Dream, which can be at odds with the personal Dream one has for oneself, uses the mother, the father, schools, religion and curren tsocial norms to teach us to perpetuate this phenomena and this is done through the use of the word. It is through the word that we learn to express our own unique creative power. It is through the word that we manifest.The word is a force that can create and destroy. It builds our own philosophy, can create beauty, harmony and peace, or can formulate a recipe for personal dissatisfaction and destruction. It can set you free or enslave you. It can invoke fear and doubt. Words iced with fear or dusted with self doubt, received by a child, have the power to create an endless drama for the rest of their lives.

Those granted with the privilege of interacting with children take on a huge responsibility of bringing a deep consciousness to their speech.

Communication is a complicated business. It requires social, linguistic and cognitive skills. It needs an awareness of how attitudes and context add meaning. The tone of voice, pitch pace and how we say something is all part of the communication process. Meaning conveyed by these para-verbal features is open to interpretation and abuse, and must take into account the culture, sensitivity, experience and stage of development of the child. Non verbal elements such as looks and gestures can confuse and impact on a child's interpretation.

My experience teaching children enabled me to become acutely aware of the power I had over these kids in my care. Within the confines of the classroom where I was at some level duty bound to uphold the Dream o f education as dictated to me by the current authorities, I had the license to shape and mould their concept of themselves purely by speaking to them, at them and with them. Teachers can become so obsessed with keeping up the smooth running of the classroom, that true empowering and challenging communication in the form of discussion, or having time to share opinions, is rare. Research in the UK concluded that insufficient time was spent in classrooms in communication that required children to think and speak for themselves, implying that the language used in the classroom was of an instructional type rather than an all engaging type. As a result, children don't learn how to be proactive in their own lives; as Ruiz terms it, they become Domesticated.

One of the things about the Dream of childhood today that is fascinating is that the cloth doesn't seem to fit anymore.

More children seem to be falling through the gaps, educationally and personally.

Could the rise of social and health problems have something to do with the possibility that the culture and society, constructed by our current language systems and its deliverance, are not making an appropriate fit with our spiritual collective and individual evolution? Is our Dreaming and that of our forefathers becoming obsolete? Are societal models upheld by, and rooted in, current language limitations well matched to children today? Is the fact that there is a quietly growing phenomenon of children who literally don't seem to be able to listen, respond and behave in accordance with society's norms, a wake up call for us to think about reconstructing our ways of speaking, educating and interacting with life? Speech cannot be omitted from human behaviour. It is a reflection of our inner processes, and as our consciousness evolves, our way of communicating must embrace this change.

Whilst working as a Support Teacher overseas I became increasingly aware of the power of labelling a child. Not just labels that are derogatory and disrespectful such as calling a child stupid or a slow learner, but the more subtle ones.

Before I devised a program of learning for the children whom I dealt with, I felt compelled to find out where their struggle with a particular subject originated. My investigations brought up some interesting issues. One of the reasons that some children would give for the gaps in their mathematical learning, for example, was that their mum or dad had been no good at Maths, "So that's where I get it from". Ideas and thoughts are legacies, too, and it seems wise to look at one's verbal heritage; the messages that float almost invisibly in the energies of families, schools and society. Another explanation would be rooted in the notion: "Well I am good at English and Art so I can't be that good at Maths, too", which reflects an unconscious thought reminiscent in the idea that you can't have your cake and eat it. Gender issues were also prevalent in the sense that girls into Maths don't go! It is therefore clear that cultural, societal and familial experiences rooted in things that are said or unsaid are factors that shape a child's self perception.

Luckily being largely unwatched, I spent much of my time with these children reframing their inner dialogue by attempting to teach the area of their distress through the area of their strength and pleasure and, more importantly, making conscious efforts to encourage the use of self empowering language. More obvious labelling such as being called shy, lazy or quiet can also be reframed, viewing quietness as being an asset as it is in some cultures. Lazy could be relaxed and shy can be seen as positively sensitive and not needing to be centre stage. It's all semantics really!

Older generations often complain about the prolific use of bad language which froths from the mouths of the youth. If language reflects culture, then we need to think why this tidal wave of swearing and speaking disrespectfully is escalating. Violence can be the result of being pushed and bullied into situations that are unsuitable. The bad press that teenagers in High School receive with regard to their language, may have something to do with the fact that they are at a time of life when they are possibly overwhelmed with change on an emotional, physical and psychological level. The demands of the current curriculum and the societal pressure to achieve and sort out their futures before they truly have time to settle into their ever changing bodies and emotions perhaps makes them feel violated, and their only way of expressing this discomfort is through explicit language and poor behaviour. We all know how good it can feel to express rebellion and be heard.

Parents and educators have a gift that we can pass on to those in our care. By speaking with awareness we have the power to affect and help shape their world positively. We give them a priceless tool for their own journey, for it will teach them to think and speak about themselves with self worth, personal pride and confidence. To articulate that overwhelming feeling of love that we sometimes feel for children, which is hard to voice, or comes at an inopportune time, is the stuff that happy, well adjusted people thrive on fo rthe rest of their lives.

Poetry is more powerful than politics. To build a habit of speaking from the heart and teaching ourselves to express compassion, love and respect for one another is an art worth labouring over.

Out of the mouths of bunnies comes a simple but profound truth:
"If you can't say anything nice, don't say nothing at all!" – Thumper (Bambi).

The Celestial Curriculum- Jagjit (1996) ISBN 0646 292676
Language, Culture and Society: A book of readings. –Ben G Blount (Winthrop Publishers Inc 1974) ISBN 0-87626-489-5

Reflective Teaching in the Primary School: A handbook for the Classroom- Andrew Pollard and Sarah Tann. (Cassell Education Ltd 1991) ISBN 0-304-31385-8
The Four Agreements- Don Miguel Ruiz (Amber-Allen Publishing1997) ISBN 978-1-878424-31-0

Nabila Cowasjee

Nabila Cowasjee is a Perth-based writer with a focus on children's health. http://umbilika.com