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  • Writer's picturetheatheneacademy

The Words we Use

**Original article can be found at

Have you ever noticed how children mimic the things their parents do and say? The other day, I noticed that my son was doodling on a piece of paper while saying his name out loud; he’s only two and doesn’t know how to write. At dinner yesterday, he gave me half of his bread because he saw my brother share his food with me. What does this mean for his social and cognitive development? Studies have shown that the language we use influences our thought process, which in turn has an effect on our reality. On a larger scale, language helps to shape our culture.  

This phenomenon is especially important when we consider how language affects the people around us, particularly children.

Social learning theory proposes that people learn new behaviors, values, and attitudes by observing the people around them (Bandura, 1971). Albert Bandura is known for his Bobo Doll experiments, in which he gave dolls to two groups of families. One group of parents were told to abuse their dolls while their children watched, and the other group interacted normally with the dolls. The kids whose parents were violent toward the dolls mimicked that violent behavior. The kids who did not observe violent behavior were far less likely to initiate any abuse.

My son tends to walk with his hands behind his back when he’s thinking, like his grandfather, and will slap his knee and laugh when he thinks something is hilarious, like I do. Children imitate the thought, speech, and action patterns of those around them. This could explain why children say or do things that seem out of character for their age, like “Girls don’t play bass; that’s a boy instrument!” or “Boys are better at math than girls,” or “Boys aren’t supposed to wear pink; that’s a girl color.” Children are not born believing there is an inherent difference in intellect or quality between girls and boys, or that one sex is superior to another; these ideas are learned socially from siblings, friends, teachers, parents, or all the above.

We know children learn from the examples set by people around them. This makes it that much more important that we pay attention to the words we use to communicate. When we tell a young girl “Oh my! How pretty you’ve gotten,” we are telling her that her physical appearance is the most important thing about her.  When we tell her “It’s because he likes you,” after a boy keeps pulling her hair, we are telling her that it’s acceptable for a boy to touch and hurt her, if he likes her. When we tell her “Just be nice; it’s your imagination,” after she says she doesn’t feel comfortable around a particular boy or man, we are telling her not to trust her instincts in favor of not causing a scene. When we tell a boy “Boys don’t cry,” we are telling him that it’s not appropriate for him to have or express his feelings. When we tell him “You’re acting like such a sissy/girl,” we are telling him that women are less than men, and to act like a woman is to be a lower subset of humanity.

We need to be aware of the effect our language has on the people around us, especially our young ones. It is our responsibility to change our mentality and language to change society.

As the mother of a young boy who has long hair and loves pink, I am often told I should cut his hair and change his clothes lest he get confused for a girl. I long for the day when our children can grow into themselves without harmful input from the people around them.

Words can help a child grow, or they can hinder a child’s development. Let us consciously decide to always choose the former.

Bandura, Albert. “Learning by Direct Experience.” 1971. Social Learning Theory. Pg 3

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