Choosing Words Wisely

Posted by Debbie Gibbs on 8/15/14 10:09 PM

The language we use with children matters. Our words can encourage or discourage their efforts, affirm or deny their feelings, and influence their concept of self and their confidence. The work of psychologist and parent educator, Haim Ginott, greatly influenced how Lowell’s first teachers chose to speak with students, and his ideas continue to influence the way we work with children today.

Haim Ginott (1922–1973) was a schoolteacher and a child psychologist who pioneered techniques for conversing with children. His best-selling book Between Parent and Child (1965) sets out to give “specific advice derived from basic communication principles that will guide parents in living with children in mutual respect and dignity.” A revised edition of the book was published in 2003, and Ginott’s advice is still relevant today.

At the heart of Ginott's work is the desire to help adults see that they can:

  • Criticize without demeaning
  • Discipline without threats
  • Praise without judging
  • Express anger without causing hurt

Throughout his book there are many scenarios that help us understand how to acknowledge (rather than argue with) children's feelings, perceptions, and opinions. His suggestions help us learn how to respond to children so that they can build trust and develop self-confidence and self-efficacy.

Ginott’s advice is best summarized in seven basic ideas.

  1. "The beginning of wisdom is listening." He stresses the importance of empathetic listening to really try to hear what the child is thinking and feeling.
  2. "Do not deny your child’s perceptions, do not dispute his feelings, do not disown his wishes, do not deride his taste, do not denigrate his opinions, do not derogate his character, do not argue with his or her experience. Instead acknowledge." Acknowledgement does not mean agreement. It only expresses respect for the child’s opinion. This insight guides adults in helping children to feel respected and valued. If a child says, “I hate practicing the piano,” instead of saying, “I’m sure you don’t really mean that,” the adult might say, “I can see you have a lot of feelings about practice time. Tell me more about that.”
  3. "Instead of criticism use guidance. State the problem and possible solution." At Lowell we invite the child to think of possible solutions to their challenges, so that they are invested in the solution and more motivated to make it happen.
  4. "When angry, describe what you see, what you feel, and what you expect, starting with the pronoun 'I.'” This is something that we do school-wide at Lowell. We encourage our students to follow this advice as well!
  5. When praising, tell children what you appreciate about them or their effort; describe specific acts. Do not evaluate character traits. Instead of saying, “You’re an amazing athlete!” an adult might say, “I can see you were working hard on defense. You blocked three shots!”
  6. "Learn to say 'no' in a less hurtful way by granting in fantasy what you can’t in reality." It’s less hurtful at least to acknowledge children’s wishes by describing your understanding of their desire. This is a way to show respect for a child’s desires while gently helping them understand reality. If a child says, “I’m going to be the next J.K. Rowling,” an adult might respond, “That’s a big dream! What is the first thing you are going to do to make that happen?”
  7. Give children a choice and a voice in matters that affect their lives. This is something that we weave into the Lowell pedagogy as well. “Choice” and “voice” lead to greater engagement, positive empowerment, ownership, independence, and motivation.

Examples of Language to Use

If you'd like more examples of language that helps children feel respected and develop independence, you can download this tip sheet developed by Lowell teachers through through the years. Just click on the image below.

Read our Purple Sheet

Looking for a school for your child?

Lowell School is an independent school in the Colonial Village neighborhood of Washington, DC, that offers Pre-Primary, Primary, and Middle School programs. It offers a rigorous and hands-on curriculum that nurtures each child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn, and supports the development of individual voice and self-reliance. For more information, please call 202-577-2000, email, or follow Lowell on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Topics: Parenting, Teaching & Learning

Debbie Gibbs

Written by Debbie Gibbs

Debbie Gibbs is a former head of Lowell School. She earned her BA in theater arts from Pomona College, her BS in elementary education from the University of Minnesota, and her MA in educational technology from the University of San Francisco. Her career as a school administrator began when she became interim assistant director at The Blake Schools in Minneapolis, MN. She went on to become the head of upper school and assistant head for academic affairs at Marin Country Day School in California. She became Lowell's fourth head of school in 2007. She has served on the Board of the Association of Independent Maryland Schools (AIMS) and the editorial board of Independent School Magazine, a publication of the National Association of Independent Schools.