Scripture encourages us to speak positively: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver,” is one well known passage. Our heavenly Father is characterised by positive encouragement and affirmation: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Sadly, a number of studies regarding child development flag the sheer number of negative words many children hear, but often the more damaging effect is the tone in which they are delivered. It doesn’t mean we ignore bad behaviour in a misguided attempt to “not be negative all the time”. What is required, as godly parents, is considered thought to our patterns of speech, particularly in how we give instructions.

A key development milestone in young toddlers is learning “no” means no. It often is recognised as a powerful word in that it is usually one of the first that is tried out back to you—accept that as a good sign, as it shows a recognition of how important this word is in defining boundaries. However, once our child has learned that there are boundaries and a “no” from us really means exactly that, we need to extend our training in positive ways and act like our gracious heavenly Father toward our children and show His character in the way we express ourselves.

A common scenario is our child carrying a bowl of cereal or a cup of liquid to the table. Without thinking we say, “Don’t spill that!” How much more encouraging can our family environment be if we put some thought into instructing in a positive way. “See how carefully you can carry that,” is an encouraging way of drawing attention to the need for care in carrying items to the table.

Worse still is the parent who falls into the trap of characterising the child negatively, and by this we mean avoid the terms “you always…” or, “don’t let me hear/see you…”—often followed with an exasperated sigh. We can do great damage to the long-term self-value of our children; some people carry the damage well into adulthood of such thoughtless characterisation as children. Do we really think that is how God reacts about our own frequent mistakes? We need to show God’s character to our children, and when we are most frustrated we have often the greatest opportunity along with the greatest challenge.

I often think of the character of God as inspiration and help. Exodus 34 (ESV) lists mostly positive attributes of God and one that contains negative consequences: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty.” Firstly there is the encouragement that after we have reached our limit with mercy, we need to show graciousness; then when we have reached the end of our tether, we need to dig deep and find a slow path to anger instead of overreacting, and then steadfast love and so on. I think you get the idea, but this is where working with our children—who have human nature just like us—is forcing us as parents to develop our characters and grow more like God our Father. The other inspiration I try to take is the 7:1 ratio of positive attributes here; God is perfect, but if our children are able to hear positive encouragement to negative consequences at even 5:1, what a transformative effect it could have on our entire family!

We need to be wise parents, however, and not fall into the trap of trying to puff up our child’s self-esteem with flattery. There is significant evidence that well meaning but glib phrases like “you are so pretty”, or, “you’re so clever”, are actually destructive. Studies have shown that a child who tackles a maths problem and is praised for their effort e.g. “Wow you worked really hard on that”; when given a choice will mostly opt to also work diligently on a second problem. A child told, “You are so clever”, will generally decline the opportunity to work on an optional second problem; the reason being they are not sure what they actually did to earn the praise, and do not want to get shown up as suddenly being ‘not clever’. As godly parents, we need to always notice and praise tangible effort and be specific about what behaviours we are praising. We want our children to grow up with a sense of self-value based on the value God has for them, and for the recognised value, effort, and contribution they feel they are to family and others.

Positive encouragement is at its most potent if our child is struggling with a character flaw or personal development in some area—perhaps lying or carelessness. It is then as parents we need to be especially diligent at looking out for and encouraging the opposite virtue. We need to notice and praise our struggling child when they speak up honestly or handle an item carefully, and give positive affirmation.

Another good example is in outlining consequences to our children, which is something we transition more and more towards as they grow older. Instead of saying, “if you don’t eat your vegetables you won’t get any ice cream,” try to follow our heavenly Father’s example to us and put it in the positive—as though it is an inevitability that they should do well, but the resulting outcome rests with them. A better way to achieve this is to use ‘when/ then’ in our consequences, e.g. “When you finish your vegetables, then you can have your ice cream.”

At first pass it may sound finnicky and picky with language, but if we contemplate the positivity of our heavenly Father, and how He puts everything in place for us to do well and make good choices in our lives, and encourages us in the right way, I’m sure we would like the same spirit of positive encouragement in our families. Also, we should be acutely aware that, as parents, we set the tone and standard of communication in our family. If we are positive and encouraging toward our spouse and try to bring out the best in them, and also encourage and bring out the best in our children, what a harmonious, encouraging, and positive godly family environment will we create for our children to grow and flourish and express the same attitudes to others.

On a practical level, at a point when our children were much older, we decided to really invest in making encouraging words and speech part of the fabric of our family. We had a large sheet of paper attached to the fridge, and if anyone overheard something encouraging said to someone else, or kind words used, they could write it down. Not only did this become a practical way to encourage positive affirmation and positive speech amongst our children, it was a wonderful part of the fabric of the family to have the fridge full of positivity and encouragement. When the sheet was full, we would celebrate with a family treat or excursion.

A similar idea we have heard of is to have a ‘nice jar’and a bowl of marbles and encourage any family member to put a marble in the jar any time they observe someone being kind or speaking kindly to someone else. When the jar is full, it is time to celebrate with a day out or a fun family treat. These are all ways to not only encourage positive words and behaviour, but for children to see a tangible positive effect on the family team through their use.

There are great blessings in store for peacemakers, and the encouragement to those of Colossae can be a great encouragement to all of us in our ecclesial and personal families: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Col 4:6 ESV).