A study at the University of Arizona found that, on average, people speak around 16,000 words per day. This is an estimate independent of gender, social class, race or employment type.

16,000 words is a lot to say — but studies show our kids need even more than that.

Dr. Betty Hart and Dr. Todd Risely of the University of Kansas studied children and families and assessed that children need to hear roughly 30,000 words per day from their parents.  To put it in perspective, education.com says this is like reading The Cat in the Hat 18 times. Phew!

While these studies focus on academic readiness for children entering kindergarten and the effects of language as shown through third grade competency exams, our words do more than just ready our children for academia — they shape them as people.

We’ve all heard our children mirror what we say and if we don’t notice it, those around us certainly do.Children learn vocabulary from their parents, with Hart and Risley finding that roughly 86 percent-98 percent of words used by children were also used by their parents.

The power of your words

Our language has power we often dismiss as we try to get our point across, especially to our children — though they should be the ones with whom we are most careful of our words.

Stop that, don’t touch that, stop bothering your brother, are all phrases we have likely uttered to our children and, if you look closely, all these phrases are negative.

So should we stop redirecting our children just for fear of negativity? Certainly not. But perhaps we can simply rethink the way we are speaking to them, by taking these negative — no, stop, don’t — phrases and allowing even our redirection to reflect positive interactions.

I can tell from the looks on my children’s faces when they’ve had enough of “Directive Mom” and need more “Engaging Mom”.

Directive Mom is present when cooking dinner. Don’t do cartwheels in the kitchen (yes, I’m serious that I have to reiterate that), Don’t go near the stove, Stop leaving your cars on the floor.

But what if Directive Mom took a little break and Engaging Mom stepped in her place?  What would my language look like then? It’s a quick fix, really, which is something we busy parents love.

Changing our language doesn’t mean we are changing our expectations, it means we are changing our full-circle message to our children, the verbal and non-verbal message they receive every time we speak one of those 30,000 words to them each day.

How to change your language

Engaging Mom could say instead Where is a good place for cartwheels? as opposed to the exasperated tone and exhausted phrase of Don’t do cartwheels in the kitchen. This gives the child ownership, a chance to answer, a chance to be heard. It also gives Mom the opportunity to take a deep breath, hear her child and not lose patience.

Saying How do you think your brother feels when you are unkind to him? allows your child the opportunity to think through the natural consequences of their actions without immediately jumping to I’ve told you 1,000 times to be nice to him!!! all while we as parents are not showing kindness.

What do we expect of these little reflectors?  They will show what they see and repeat how they hear. It is how they learn.

The results of our words

Our language has so many facets — verbal, nonverbal, tone, mannerisms. All these things play into how our children perceive us and thus perceive themselves. Retired fifth grade teacher and mother of two, Tracy Mott, says, “The voice we use with our children is our own inner voice, often learned from our parents. Most people don’t want to pass this down. But what we use with our children becomes their inner voice. Do we want them to carry a positive or negative voice with them?”

What we speak to and believe of our kids will become reality. It is the power of the self-fulfilled prophecy. If we convince our kids, though unintentionally, that they are always doing the wrong thing, then they will continue to always do the wrong thing and will begin to see this as their reality.

As parents, through our language we have a responsibility show our children that we believe in them, that they will make mistakes and they will break rules and we will still love them, still believe in them, still guide and love them unconditionally as they develop into the people they were meant to be.

This story was written for CharlotteFive’s latest channel for parents in the QC, called QC Playground. Sign up for the weekly QC Playground newsletter here.

Photo: Liz Logan