"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
December 4, 2013
Word Count
by Emily S. Jorgensen

Recently, our family spent some time with another family. Jokes were told, recreation was enjoyed, food was eaten. Conversations were had. It is always interesting to watch how other families interact with each other.

We noticed that in this other family, people rarely said “please” or “thank you” or “excuse me” or “I’m sorry” (in a genuine way that is, it was said sarcastically once or twice). Even the parents in the family spoke with an impatient directness that was sometimes less than kind.

I realize that many people feel these social niceties are not important when one is around family — these people will love you no matter what, so why not do what is easy and comfortable? I know every family has their better and worse moments; we each have our own family culture that may look odd to others.

However, I think our family members are the very people we should be the most considerate of, the most polite to, the most overtly respectful to. And I do not just mean that children should show these things to their parents. I believe parents should earn respect by showing it; it is not just a one-way gift they are owed by their children.

I was taught, and I firmly believe, that words matter. The things we say to each other in our homes are the blood in the body of the family — they are what keep nourishing all parts of the body, what keeps it warm, and what brings the healing antibodies when an invading threat is noticed.

I come from two generations of English majors. My mother and my grandmother both hold college degrees in English. (My great-grandmother held hers in piano, just like me. I come by it honestly, apparently). Anyway, we were never permitted to get away with improper grammar if we were within Mom’s earshot.

Furthermore, my mother decided early on that there was a rather long list of words that were unacceptable in our home. Flatulence was only ever referred to as “passing gas;” pretty much every bodily function word that was at all descriptive was off the table; “shut-up” was a “bad” word, and we were called out on our tone of voice if it was not kind.

As my husband and I raise our children, we have developed our own list of unacceptable words. But we have also tried to take this a step further. It is not enough to use polite words and show good manners. When my husband and I went through marriage counseling years ago before we had children, we learned much more effective ways of communicating than either of us had grown up with.

Instead of the exasperated rhetorical whine, “Why must you always leave your socks on the floor?” in which the speaker never actually cares about why the person did it, it is much more effective to just say, “It really bothers me when you leave your socks on the floor. Can you please come clean them up?”

“I feel_____ (fill in the blank) when you _____(fill in the blank),” is a useful recipe for discussing issues, as is announcing in no uncertain terms, “I think we need to discuss an issue” instead of just launching into a verbal attack.

My husband is extremely sensitive to verbal attacks, and so I have had to learn to phrase my complaints in as calm a manner as possible. Maybe a more Christian person than I could just let more things go, but I really need to talk it out. This can be done with love and the Spirit, but it takes a lot of practice.

Active listening phrases like “so what I am hearing is ____ (fill in the blank reflecting what you have heard the other person say); is there anything else?” are also very important tools in our family’s communication arsenal.

Reflecting to our children what it sounds as though they are saying has proven to be invaluable. Many times I will say, “So it sounds like this-and-such is bothering you. Is that right? And they will say, “No, that is not it at all. It’s like this.”

I can see that if I had just reacted, assuming my first interpretation of their actions or words was correct, my reaction would have been inappropriate and would not have matched their needs at the time.

By making sure I truly listen to them before I try to “fix” things — or worse, try to “fix” them — we have avoided a lot of the misunderstandings and hurt feelings I think we would have otherwise. I believe that modeling this type of respect when I have a problem with one of my children will help them respect each other as well.

In this way, I hope we are following the parenting counsel of King Benjamin:

And ye will not suffer your children … that they transgress the laws of God, and fight and quarrel one with another, and serve the devil, who is the master of sin … But ye will teach them to walk in the ways of truth and soberness; ye will teach them to love one another, and to serve one another. (Mosiah 4:14-15)

This does not mean there will not be conflict. Of course there will be conflict, even in the most devoted LDS home. But we can model a healthy way to deal with these conflicts.

I have found that the best way to do this is by giving a child an alternative phrase to say or action to do. It is not enough to say, “Don’t speak to your sister that way. It is rude!” although giving clear labels to unacceptable behavior is useful.

Upon receiving this chastisement, a child may think, “Ok, apparently I will get in trouble if Mom hears me say that.” But without another response modeled to them, they must choose to either make up something else to say, to leave the conflict feeling unresolved, or to decide next time to take their issue up out of Mom’s earshot.

At least for my children, the first option (which is of course the best) seems hardest for them, and they are not likely to do it alone. So, when it is clear that parental intervention is necessary (I always try to wait and see if they are going to be able to work it out themselves equitably) I try to model to them some sentences they could say in the situation.

Instead of “Hey! Give that back or I’m going to tell Mom!” they can say “I was still playing with that. May I please have it back?”

Instead of “No, you’re doing it wrong. The game is supposed to go like this,” they can say, “I am used to playing the game like this. Let’s check the rules and see what they say.”

It amazes me when I am in public and hear parents simply squash their children’s conflicts by threatening a punishment. If they are not ever taught how to work a conflict out, how will they interact when Mom is not around? Survival of the fittest? The biggest, strongest, most stubborn or oldest gets his way? I hope these parents take the time to model conflict resolution at home.

My 8-year-old and 5-year-old still speak to each other somewhat inconsiderately. But my 10-year-old is usually diplomatic at this point (she was not so when she was 5 and 8 either). I walk through a room and I hear her saying things like “Well, thank you for the offer, but I really don’t want to play trains right now,” instead of “No! I hate playing trains,” which is what I would have heard a couple of years ago.

She didn’t learn that out of a book. She learned that because it is the sort of language she hears in our home and that we try to model for her.

This is not always easy. It is far, far easier to just speak the way we were spoken to, and act the way we were shown. Psychologists call the family member who consciously changes his behavior and passes on a new skill set to his children a transitional character.

At first, it felt downright awkward for me to calmly say things like, “I feel overwhelmed by all the backpacks and coats on the floor when you all come home from school and drop them there. Please come clean them up. Let’s make a new habit.”

My knee-jerk response (and admittedly the voice inside my head still says it this way) would be, “Why must you all leave your backpacks here! It drives me crazy! Come here right this minute and clean this up! Grrrr!”

At least in the arena of communication, my husband and I are transitional characters. It takes a great deal of self-control and zealous determination to change entrenched patterns in a family. But when I hear my children speaking kindly to each other, or at least being immediately chagrined when I ask from my “eavesdropping spot” in the next room (which usually means I just happen to be working in the kitchen), “Was that a kind way to speak to your brother?” I feel it is worth it.

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About Emily S. Jorgensen

Emily Jorgensen received her bachelor's degree in piano performance from Brigham Young University. She earned her master's degree in elementary music education, also at BYU. She holds a Kodaly certificate in choral education, as well as permanent certification in piano from Music Teacher’s National Association.

She has taught piano, solfege, and children’s music classes for 17 years in her own studio. She has also taught group piano classes at BYU.

She is an active adjudicator throughout the Wasatch Front and has served in local, regional, and state positions Utah Music Teachers' Association, as well as the Inspirations arts contest chair at Freedom Academy.

She gets a lot of her inspiration for her column by parenting her own rambunctious four children, aged from “in diapers” to “into Harry Potter.” She is still married to her high school sweetheart and serves in her ward’s Primary.

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