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Cultivating the Inner Voice

According to Kostelnik, Whiren, Soderman, and Gregory (2009) negative verbal environments are "ones in which children feel unworthy, unlovable, insignificant, or incompetent as a result of what adults do or do not say to them". One common way in which caregivers, both family members and professionals, working with young humans create negative verbal environments is by using judgmental vocabulary to describe the behaviors of young humans. An example of judgmental vocabulary to describe behaviors is labeling a young human as hyperactive instead of energetic. Another example of judgmental vocabulary to describe behavior is labeling a young human as grumpy instead of communicating needs. This labeling can be done directly or within the earshot of the young humans with total disregard to their social-emotional well-being. This particular way of creating a negative verbal environment leads to young humans interpreting these labels as that they are not "important" or worthy (Kostelnik, Whiren, Soderman, & Gregory, 2009). The adult is trying to "control the situation" by using judgmental vocabulary to describe the behaviors of young humans (Kostelnik, Whiren, Soderman, & Gregory, 2009).

Adults can feel upset (or like a bad caregiver) because they, and/or society, perceive the behavior as a negative one. This could lead to resentment and negative thoughts or behaviors acted out on the young human as well as the young human upset because they feel the pressure of this negative label. This cyclical cycle of the young human's actions impacting a caregiver's beliefs about them, which cause the caregiver's actions to reinforce the belief and in turn influence the young human's actions is called self-fulfilling prophesy. Robert K. Merton, a sociologist, coined the term saying "if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences" (Merton, 1948 p.193). Basically, it is The Little Engine that Could's idea of believing that you can so that your behaviors encourage that thought and your actions follow so that his original thought of "I think I can" happens. Therefore, if we create a negative verbal environment through labeling young humans it creates a negative framework that translates to undesirable behaviors that can lead to resentment, anger, disappointment, etc of the young human but also towards the young human. By choosing a positive label or description, it re-frames the behavior(s) as a positive action thereby encouraging a healthier self-esteem, fulfillment/exploration of their true self without harboring guilt/shame/negativity, and creating a positive verbal environment. It also helps to avoid any resentment, negative energy or guilt felt by the caregiver towards the young human. Think about it, if a caregiver labels a young human as "bad" not only are they internally processing this negative label as their identity, any behavior they have is then categorized as such (even if that wasn't the intent) because the caregiver sees and addresses behaviors that correlate to being "bad" which increases the times the label is used but also reinforces the belief that the young human is indeed "bad" and therefore that label becomes the young humans inner voice. Also, the solution sought by the caregiver stems from the negative framework and therefore doesn't meet the child's true need. The behaviors may be the same, but by re-framing them into a positive behavior the negativity is gone and the child can be celebrated for who they are. Because, let's face it, being "bossy" translates to giving direction well, and being a leader, which is trait to be encouraged in a young human but could be discouraged if labeled as negative. So, the next time your young human is taking longer than you would like, resist the urge to label them as slow or being a dawdler and instead think of how mindful and careful they are being.

"Speak to your children as if they are the wisest, kindest, most beautiful and magical humans on the earth, for what they believe is what they will become." - Brooke Hampton, Writer


Kostelnik, M.J., Whiren, A.P., Soderman, A.K., & Gregory, K.M. (2009). Guiding children's social development & learning. Clifton Park, NY: Delmar Cengage Learning.

Merton, R. K. (1948). The self-fulfilling prophecy [Electronic version]. The Antioch Review, 8(2), 193-210.

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