More and better words for difficult kids

Who is the most difficult person in your life?”

My pastor asked us to just be quiet for a minute and think about that. Sadly, I didn’t need the whole minute.

Do you know who I thought of instantly? One of my own kids. Awful.

Ok. Ok. In my defense it is summer. And this kid of mine has “nothing left to do.” And when this kid has nothing left to do, this kid does stupid things…or, as my wife more diplomatically puts it, he doesn’t make the best choices. (I’m sticking with “stupid things”.)

And then I do stupid things. I react too quickly. I punish without listening. I raise my voice. The cheese slides right off my crackers.

Surely I’m not the only one among us here, only halfway through summer, with a head full of regrets already.

So my pastor encouraged us to understand, empathize, consider their point of view and their feelings, make an effort to be kind…especially with our words.


And I thought about the work of researchers Todd Risley and Betty Hart. They compared the early childhoods of children on welfare to the children of “professionals” in Kansas City. Most importantly, they wanted to understand what exactly had the greatest impact on a child’s development. And whether that impact lasted into adulthood.

The biggest impression on children isn’t made by income, nutrition, or quality of education – as researchers had predicted. The most profound effect on a child’s development is made by words. The words of parents.

Children who grew up in “professional” homes heard 20,000,000 more words in the first three years of their lives than kids on welfare. The more words a child heard, the researchers discovered, the better developed the child’s mind. Specifically, a house full of words increased a child’s self-control, self-confidence, problem solving and proficiency at reading and writing. And these benefits lasted into adulthood.


But it’s not just the quantity of words that differed between neighborhoods, but the quality of them too. Children of professionals heard 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements in the first three years of life while children on welfare heard the opposite: 80,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements.

500,000 words of encouragement. That’s 456 good words each day. Words that will last a lifetime.

No matter how difficult…I’ve got to find better words.

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Shaun Groves writes about the ups and downs of fatherhood and how he manages to stay sane in spite of (or maybe because of?) being a dad. Shaun is a dad of four and travels the world singing and speaking on behalf of Compassion International. He is also his household’s reigning Candyland champion.

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  1. Ouch. Better words–yes! Thank you!
    (I thought of one of my own kids, too)

  2. Yes, big ouch and such a great reminder!!

  3. Thank-you for this. My most difficult person is also one of my kids. *sigh* Better thoughts, more time in the Word = better words for me.

  4. I needed this today. One of my favorite preachers taught a class on discipline that I attended when my daughter was a baby (she’s 25 now). One of the things I took away was this: for every negative comment be sure to give 10 positive comments. I can’t say I’ve done that like I should, but I do notice a difference in my children when the positive outweighs the negative. My youngest is 12 and I so needed to be reminded of this today in the midst of our summer.

  5. Thanks for laying it out honest. I can see myself in that, & it makes me want to be better. Yes. Here’s to a 456-word day!

  6. This is all so very true. As a former teacher, I can say I saw this all the time — children who didn’t understand the give and take of conversation, hadn’t had much interaction in this way. It puts young people at such a disadvantage. So heartbreaking.

  7. Much as I totally agree with the sentiment, that is a ridiculous piece of non-science. Sorry, how can you base outcomes on words alone? Were all other variables matched in both groups. No, that’s impossible.

    • I wouldn’t be too quick to judge the quality of the science at play here, Alyson. After all, you’ve only read a musician’s very brief summary of the years of research that was done but real live scientists. They do a much better job explaining their work than I ever could – check out their work in full sometime.

  8. Great things to think about as I can easily fall into the trap of nag, nag, nag…A good reminder to be proactive rather than reactive.

  9. Ohtograce says:

    Unfortunately, I see this often as a school psychologist. Sweet preschoolers who are so far behind in communication, social, and cognitive skills with parents who themselves lack the skills because they grew up in the same, desperate environments. It’s the same look and feel for the kids in many of the orphanages I’ve visited overseas.

  10. Don’t feel badly! I thought about that when I was reading what you said…who is the most difficult person in my life right now? I immediately thought of my second son. So I’m there with you, and so is my husband. He’s got some serious anger going on…and honestly, he takes after me cause I’m basically the “refined, adult version” of him. I share all his tendencies, but I rely on the Holy Spirit in those moments (and sometimes not!). So at times, I take a different path when faced with anger, but at times I respond with an adult temper tantrum!

    Anyway, that’s a very interesting study and I want to make those many many words that I speak count. Possibly going with fewer commands, and more encouragements! Thanks for encouraging us to do that!

  11. Great topic to think about! Thank you!

  12. We think of one of our kids because we love them so much, that’s why they drive us crazier than anyone else!

    I totally agree that better words bring better results. I need to up my game.

  13. jennifer says:

    I love this post. Though, the most difficult person in my life these days is myself…and I still need to work on my words. I have a nearly 19 month old and a nearly 2 month old and I get frustrated with both of them more than I should, especially when they are just being themselves at 2 and 19 months. I need more patience, grace, and love for them and the craziness that surrounds two under two! Such a good reminder that working on my heart works on my tongue.

  14. I first heard this concept when I read Jim Trelease’s Read Aloud Handbook – which I highly recommend. He cites this same data, which does (in fact, scientifically) show that one reason for lower income children lagging behind others when they start school is that not only are adults not speaking to them (or when they do, it is with discouraging, incorrect language) but they are also not READING to them. The reasons for that are multi-fold: lack of time, lack of parental education, lack of cultural emphasis on nurturing childcare, or just plain old lack of parent involvement, which definitely spans income level. Reading aloud to our children is one of the THE most important things we can do. And it’s not just about preparing them for school, it is about expanding their minds, exposing them to ideas and cultures they might not otherwise see or learn about. If you are looking for the right 500,000 words of encouragement to share with your children – start by reading a good book to them.

  15. Link to the study please? 🙂

  16. Greg Duel says:

    I was out of town that Sunday so I missed that sermon. As I think of the answer to that question one person repeatedly comes to mind. ME. I am without a doubt the most difficult person in my to deal with. Almost without fail my lack of patience and grace give me more problems than any person I know.

  17. This also applies to adult interactions with one another. I am going to propose this solution to a friend. Thanks for this reminder!

  18. “No matter how difficult…I’ve got to find better words.” <— THIS.IS.HUGE for me today! I was working through a passage in the Bible today that talked about loving one another. I pondered how I might love the "one-anothers" in my life, better. This is a very real and practical way that I can love others…choosing better words! Words of encouragement, words of healing, words of hope, words that repair relationships, better words. Thanks! 🙂

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