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Choice of Words

May 23, 2012
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I have been thinking a lot this month about the ways that we choose to talk with children about their potential, about the things they are good at, and about the gifts we see in them. When we call out something to praise or to tell a child we believe they are capable of something, our faith in their abilities may open their eyes to something about themselves. This is a tremendous opportunity for us when we are conscious of the power our words have on even children we do not know well.

Of course, the words we use with children who are close to us are most important. Parents and teachers know that. But the words we choose with children we meet, even fleetingly, can have an impact.

One of our founders volunteers as a reading tutor. The child she was working with was behind his class and was in jeopardy of being the only child to not make the cut to go to a reading celebration. She was working closely to help get him enthusiastic about reading, and she was struggling to find a book that would spark his interest. After several attempts, she brought in a Tiki and Ronde Barber book, and it was magic. The boy lit up—this was a book he was excited about. Unfortunately, there was not enough time left in the session for them to read it together. She suggested that he keep the book until the next time and read it on his own. “I don’t think I can read it. It’s too hard,” he said. “You’re smart,” she replied. “I think you can do it.” That moment was a turning point for the child. Her faith in his ability, her statement that he was smart, gave him a confidence he had not had before. The next session, he asked to read a book to her. A few short weeks later, he earned enough reading points to go to the reading celebration.

Another child we met at a book distribution stands out in my mind. She told us that she couldn’t read chapter books yet. We found a few early readers, and then I suggested that she would probably be reading chapter books by the end of the summer, so maybe we should look at some. We read the backs of some books, and then she said, “Well, I think maybe I could read a chapter book. I’ve just never had one.” She left with a mix of chapter books and early readers and a couple of board books for siblings, and I saw her later in the hall, reading to herself quietly and thumbing through her new chapter books. She believed she would be able to read at a new level, and that opened a door.

Many teachers and parents give these boosts along the way regularly. But we should remember that we all hold the power to envision successes for children that they may be hesitant to see for themselves. Our encouragement, even of children we barely know, can make a difference in what they see as possible. And this is not isolated to children who are struggling or at-risk.

Someone came up to my daughter recently in a non-academic setting and commented on the large size of the book she was reading. This is not in and of itself unusual—she is an avid reader, and that plus the fact that she looks younger than she is often draws comment. The man said “You’re a really good reader.” My daughter shyly looked back at her book. This, too, is not unusual. But what happened next was different. He went on. “Are you proud of yourself for being such a good reader? Because you really should be. It’s a great thing.” She looked up and beamed.

It was the “are you proud of yourself—you should be” that was new, and it made an impact. Of course we have said similar things at home, but to have a stranger stake out her accomplishment as something to celebrate, the fact that he was celebrating with her, was different.

One of our goals in giving books to kids in need is to open worlds of opportunity. Both in and out of the context of books, our words and praise can make a difference. The things we choose to focus on and celebrate also can make a difference. By noticing and seeing the value or potential in a child, we open the way for them to find it in themselves.

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