Words Matter

August 29, 2022

Words matter. They shape a child’s mind: opening landscapes while fencing others off, carving streams of ideas and emotional associations while setting up dams elsewhere.

Our words give children examples of words they can use. Daily, moment by moment, children watch as we demonstrate how people interact. Not only our choice of words, but the way we use them – yell or cajole or reason or ignore or cuddle – models for children how they might navigate similar moments.

Our choice of topic speaks to children of what’s important. What we notice aloud, and what we dedicate time to discussing – these tell children what’s worth pursuing. We leave other topics and perspectives to lie fallow. Our words open children’s minds to particular categories, or to nuance and complexity, in arenas we enter.

Thus a great deal rides on an educator’s choice of words. What a weighty privilege. Our words are one of the most powerful tools we wield to nurture the values, capacities, and skills we hope will grow in children. How important, then, to use our words in ways that develop a child in ways that align with our hopes for them.

What could that sound like? What words build a child’s sense of themselves as curious, capable, connected Jewish individuals? Here are three types of language we can cultivate as educators, and how they might sound in practice.

  1. Language of Caring for Self, Others, and Our Environment

Life is open-ended! We can’t possibly ready a child for the hundreds of thousands of moments they’ll make their way through; couldn’t possibly give them a script for kindness and collaboration and repairing relationship, or a complete set of guidelines for caring for paintbrushes and dolls and Jewish books and their tallit. We can, however, build a child’s set of examples of what it looks like, sounds like, and feels like to care for themselves, others, and their environment. With those specific examples, a child can generalize to make their own way in the world, holding a strong internal moral compass, listening deeply to themselves and others.

Here’s what it can sound like when educators use this language:

“You put the materials away! Now they’ll be right where the next person can find them. That helps care for everyone in our community.”

Notice aloud acts of care for self and others in order to build a child’s storehouse of examples.

“What are three ways we could take care of each other during our conversation today?”

Activate children’s knowledge of what it can look like and sound like to care for each other during a group conversation. Children benefit from specific strategies, e.g., one person talks at a time, offer a supporting statement before a disagreement. Which strategies to choose depends on the context and the social skills the group is working on. 

“Oh, my! Your shoulders are like this (mimic shoulders forward and up) and your mouth is like this (purse lips together tightly). Are you feeling frustrated?”

Gently guide children’s awareness to connections between their body and emotions, and check that you’re labeling the child’s feeling as they would. Older children might respond to, “Check in with your body. What are you feeling?” 

“It looks like you might be feeling anxious about this? I’m guessing you can do it, even while you’re anxious!”

Affirm that the child can tolerate that unpleasant emotion and still get through their task. You wouldn’t ask them to do something you don’t believe they can do; you believe in this child! Help the child identify resources for the task.

  1. Language of Empowerment

It’s hard to be a child! Many children spend much of their waking time in situations in which other people tell them what to do. Even when they do experience choice, a child may be primed to make choices based on what will please others or avoid negative consequences for themselves. It can be hard for a child to develop a sense of agency; how little opportunity we offer children to do so! And yet, we want children to grow into adults who believe they have choice, who have the confidence and clarity to choose that which cares for themselves and others, and the capacity to reflect on their choices. Children need opportunities to practice choosing, observing outcomes, reflecting on their choice, and choosing again.

Here’s what that empowerment with its attending reflection can sound like.

“What could you do?”

Whether it’s about how they might care for a partner, or stay focused on an individual task, or remember something, we can use this phrase to help a child generate options. Once we have a list of possibilities, let the child choose the strategies they believe might work for them. Related phrases include: “How could you know if your plan is working?” and, “What might be challenging about that?” and, “What could you do if you get stuck?”

“What worked? What was hard? What could you do differently next time?”

Reflection is an essential part of developing agency! Draw a child’s attention to the strategies they used and the outcomes they experienced. Affirm that this time was simply that – one version of their choices, and that the child can make different choices next time if they’d like.

 “Last week, you asked…What do you think now?”

Ask a child, or a group of children, to reflect on previous ideas. It normalizes the idea that our worldview is not fixed, but instead, that our insights change and grow as we do.

 “Wow. You didn’t use to be able to do that, and now you can.”

Celebrate the child’s growth! Look back together to see progress, so the child learns that growth is both natural and the outcome of directed effort. Recognize small steps, too, like when a child takes a breath instead of yelling, asks a peer for help with ease, puts their lunch away without a reminder.

  1. Language of Lifelong Relationship With Judaism

Children have a relationship with Judaism right now, whether they are 3 or 5 or 8 or 16. Gaining foundational Jewish literacy isn’t something they do outside of this current relationship with Judaism; how children view Jewish life, and their own role in it, is very much being shaped by the experiences they have right now. So it is that Jewish learning is not simply preparation for a future Jewish adulthood – a child’s Jewish learning experience sets patterns for their lifelong relationship with Judaism. Let it be a dynamic one! Then, no matter how the child grows, wherever they go, or what happens in the world, the child – now adult – will know how to frame a nourishing life in sync with their individuality, Judaism, and their world.

Here’s what it can sound like to build a dynamic relationship with Judaism.

“What do you think?”

Before offering an interpretation from our tradition, ask a child what their opinion is. Treat this opinion with as much respect as every other opinion in our tradition. The child’s ideas matter.

“The Torah says…,” and “The early rabbis say…,” and “In the middle ages, she wrote…,” and “One of last year’s third graders…”

Instead of offering a static Judaism, let Judaism’s development be visible to children. Share the evolution of practices through the ages so that children observe that Judaism changes through time. Bring the child’s ideas into dialogue with Jewish texts from many generations. 

“You’re asking the same question that Jews have asked for a long, long time.”

Notice aloud that children are taking part in our centuries-old interpretive community. They’re doing something Jews have done through our history – and still do! And, the child has named an important question, one worth spending time pursuing.

You had a different idea!”

Celebrate differing interpretations. Celebrate the courage to share, kindly, an opinion of their own. Confirm that multiple viewpoints on Jewish life can be beautiful and life-affirming.

You have a perspective that no one else does. When you share it, people can think about things in new ways.”

Affirm that the child’s unique voice is essential, and worth hearing. Together, we can see things we’d never seen before, dream solutions as yet untested.

Words matter. Our words – this language – builds a child’s knowledge, skills, and capacities to be curious, capable, connected Jewish individuals. There’s no judgment here of what a child can or can’t do; we simply offer the child words to support skills and capacities they don’t yet hold securely.

As teachers, we think about what we say to children. And yet, one of the most powerful statements we can make is to listen to a child. Listening closely to a child, we express that their words matter. We shape a child’s confidence and courage. When we offer listening without preconceived notions of how a child should make meaning of a situation, or of a Jewish text, we offer space for the child to pursue their own ideas. Our curiosity unearths the child’s point of view, brings it into the light for the child to assess. What we want, ultimately, is a child whose critical thinking, compassion, creativity, and courage drive their own words, words that offer dignity to all humans across our planet.

 As teachers, we behold hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children. Each one is singular. Each child asks of us an attention to words that will help them grow in the fullness of their powers. Our aim becomes to help the very child before us, this one, this child who will carry forward all of the words and weights and awakened senses we have gifted them, carry these words to create harmony for themselves and everyone in our world.

There is moral meaning in the work we do.