How Our Conversations Shape Our Kids

When our son was little, someone asked him, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

We expected him to say, “a fireman” or “a doctor” or “an astronaut.”

His answer surprised us all: “I want to be honest.”

Now, at age 32, Tim has fulfilled his childhood dream.  He’s one of the most honest people I know.

That doesn’t mean he’s always made good choices.  When you’re growing up, you make mistakes when you’re finding your path.  He didn’t always volunteer information – but when we asked, he told us the truth.

But honesty is simply a part of who he is.  It’s important to him.

I don’t know if he remembers giving that response, but he’s heard us tell that story often.  The more he heard it, the more real it became for him.

We’ve also pointed out how sensitive he was to the feelings of others when he was growing up – how he could just “sense” what was really going on inside a person.

That’s also who he is.  Now, he’s managing a restaurant near San Diego – and his intuitive skills have made his customer service world-class.

kidsAs kids, we were all influenced by what people said about us.  When someone pointed out a hidden skill or strength that we didn’t know we had, we listened.  The words stuck.  And if others pointed out the same thing, we began to believe it.

The opposite is also true.  If someone devalued us as a child or pointed out a negative trait that we hadn’t noticed, we listened.  The words stuck.  If others pointed out the same thing, we began to believe that, too.

Kids are impressionable.  Before they have skills of discernment, they believe what people say about them.

They believe the good words.

They believe the bad words.

They become what others see in them.

It’s not that different for adults, is it?  We tend to believe the perceptions of others, even if those perceptions are inaccurate.  People’s words can either give life to us, or they can steal it from us.

The Bible says, “The power of life and death is in the tongue.”

So, what does it mean?

  • Our kids are listening to what we say about them, even if we don’t realize it.
  • We need to acknowledge – to their face – the unique strengths we see in them.
  • We need to tell others – with our kids listening – about those same strengths.
  • We need to be intentional about the way we describe our kids – to them, and to others.
  • We need to avoid praising our kids for characteristics they don’t have, but that we hope they’ll get.  That’s flattery.  They sense it’s not true, and we lose integrity and influence with them.
  • We need to look for the strengths in the adults around us, and affirm them honestly in those areas.  People assume that adults don’t need encouragement, because they look like they have their act together.  They don’t.  Nobody does.  It’s part of being human, and we need each other.

Our words will make a difference in another person’s life, whether we know it or not.

Choose those words carefully.


Senior Consultant at FranklinCovey; Speaker, Author of 5 books – including “People Can’t Drive You Crazy If You Don’t Give Them the Keys,” “I Wish He Had Come With Instructions,” and “Dealing With the Elephant in the Room.” (See Book page)

  • Phyllis McCall Jew

    Words do stay with us. As a child I was hurt by this. So as an adult I tried very hard not to say words that would hurt my children in the long run. I needed to stay on top of this with my husband as he would say harsh things to the kids and not think about the lasting affects. Thanks again for your good words.

    • It’s always good to know that there are no perfect parents. We’re still in process, no matter how old our kids are!

      • Phyllis McCall Jew

        Always a work in progress.

  • Derek

    It’s so true, and it has been so fun to watch in my son. He is days away from turning three and any time someone around him does something good (not every time, he is 3) he says “you did a really good job” or “you did great”. I realized the other day that must mean we as parents are doing a good job enforcing the positive.

    Just like Mike has pointed out in this post, what we bring attention to and educe in others is a reality that will start to manifest. It saddens me when I see parents telling their kids they are bad, or dumb or anything negative. As a child myself I was always told by my mom I was “shy” or “dumb for being shy”, there was an awkward time when my ears grew a little faster than my head and she was telling me she wanted to have my ears pinned back. I know, first hand how those kind of comments create your reality, and I am always at work at re-creating that reality.

    Great post (as always) and one I hope people really give some thought to. We could change an entire generation in a blink if everyone would be more aware of this principal. And don’t forget (as Mike mentioned) it will still work on us adults to. Start complimenting the wonderful traits you see in people and watch how not only do those traits blossom in those folks but how many more people you notice also are exuding those traits.

    • Those early experiences – good or bad – dig some deep grooves that seem to stay with us throughout our life. It’s where our hard wiring takes place, so we spend our lives trying to compensate. We can build new grooves, but the old ones are always in the background.

      I remember watching our daughter disciplining her dolls when she was a little rugrat and thinking, “Is that how we talk to her?” Kids don’t look at their dad or mom and say, “I’m going to imitate them.” They just absorb it and become what they see.

      A little scary, right? But what an opportunity to be intentional about building the right grooves into our kids.

      It could save them a fortune in therapy someday . . .

      Thanks for your thoughts, Derek – always insightful . . .

  • Phil Dickey

    Good stuff, Mike (as always).

  • Bill

    As the father of a 10 year old boy with no other siblings, Mike’s advice is very helpful. I’m hoping (and praying) that any good my wife and I can do now will pay off as he becomes a pre-teen, teen then young adult.

    • Thanks, Bill – it’s a great adventure with no guarantees. But those conversations now will make an impact as he’s making choices in the future. Just love him to pieces . . . !