I sat with my son on my lap, soaking up the warm sun and watching the puffy clouds float by. I swept my hand through my son’s thick hair, the way my grandmother had once done to me, and sang to him the song of my childhood:
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are grey. You’ll never know dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.”
As we enjoyed the quiet for a moment, the song echoed in my mind like a silent serenade. I began focusing on the words, line by line. For some reason, they didn’t feel as light and bright as I had once remembered. Despite hearing the song hundreds of times growing up, it took me thirty-four years to really hear the words.
- “You make me happy” - While I often feel happy when I am with my son, he does not make me happy. My emotions live within me. Putting the source of, and thus the responsibility for, my happiness on my child seems confusing and just plain unhealthy.
- “You’ll never know dear, how much I love you” - Gosh, I hope that isn’t true. I want my son to know how much I love him.
- “Please don’t take my sunshine away” - What does that mean anyway? Does it mean "don’t take my son away" and if it does, what kind of message is this (insert me hitting my forehead)? I mean, why?
But, almost as quickly as I began to question the messages of these words, I dismissed the thought. I mean, songs like this have been sung for decades. They can’t possibly be harmful. Maybe I was overthinking things... and so I moved on with my day.
Later that night, my son and I curled up together on the couch to read before bed and he chose one of the Llama Llama books. As I was reading, “Don’t be sad, new little Llama. It is ok to miss your mama,” that curious feeling from earlier in the day returned. The very next page read, “Llama Llama, please don’t fuss. Have some fun and play with us.”
My curiosity turned to discomfort. Don’t be sad… Don’t fuss…?
When I paused to really hear the message behind the words, I felt like they were saying it's wrong to be sad, it's wrong to fuss, and it's wrong to feel. None of this was sitting well with me and that queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach was my sign. I was not going to dismiss this feeling any longer. Instead, I would explore it.
And explore I did. After lots and lots of reading, thinking, asking and sharing about the impact words have (or don't have) on our children, this is what I learned:
Children receive messages from all around them. We offer messages in the way we speak to our children and model our own social-emotional skills. Our children gather messages as we either react or respond to a situation. And there are messages found in the books, songs, and stories we share with them. Collectively, these messages become the building blocks that shape their self-talk as well as their beliefs, values, and behaviors. Some messages are supportive, empowering, and growth-minded while others are dismissive, punitive, or apathetic.
Studies have shown that our words matter. Messaging that denies or dismisses a child their emotions or supports narrow thinking in terms of gender, race, and sexuality, can adversely affect a child’s development. Whoa, okay, so my reservations about the song were not completely silly, but I still had questions.
Aren’t books written to be open for interpretation? As parents, can’t we just read the books and sing the songs as they are and discuss the topics with our children? As an adult, I do this often - read, analyze, and interpret. I have these skills. But what about my child?
So I kept digging, and the findings continued.
Children are not tiny adults. Developmentally and neurologically, there are some stark differences. Our children have brains that are still developing. Research has shown that children spend a great deal of time in their brainstem, which is wired for survival, and in their midbrain, or limbic system, which is the body’s emotional command center. Ever notice your child hitting you when they are mad, or whining for minutes on end, or screaming no at the top of their lungs when you give them the blue cup instead of the red? The primitive and emotive brains are activated and responding.
Then, I read about another area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in higher-level thinking. These skills include impulse control, attention/focus, and emotional management. This brain region comes online at the age of three and is not fully developed until the mid-twenties.
I paused there.
Reading this made it clear to me. It’s unrealistic for our two, three, or even ten-year-olds to analyze, empathize, and problem-solve in the way adults do. It was one of those ah-ha moments. It was then I realized that the way we speak to our children must be different than the way we speak to adults because we are talking to two different brains.
That feeling in the pit of my stomach from earlier was making sense.
If the ability to understand emotions is a skill set - like reading, math, and science - then I wanted to nurture this skill set in my son, and doing so would mean that I get to consider the many messages being received by this beautiful developing brain before me.
Reading the science behind it all made it clear to me that what I say to my child and how I say it matters just as the words found in the songs, books, and nursery rhymes I share with him matter.
For the sake of not only my child but our society’s mental health at large, I began to research some of the most popular songs, books, and nursery rhymes we share with children for common "pitfalls," and this is what I found:
Dismissing rather than validating feelings
Have you ever read the words “stop crying” or “It’s not that big of a deal?” Statements like this send messages to our children that shape how they view themselves and the world around them. Some of these messages include:
- Your feelings are unimportant.
- The events that led to this emotion are trivial.
- Unpleasant emotions are not allowed.
- You are unable to problem-solve so I will do it for you.
When a child’s feelings are dismissed, they learn that their feelings are wrong, inappropriate, and invalid. Additionally, they may develop the belief that they are broken because they feel, causing them to suppress emotions. And sometimes, even with the best of intentions, we attempt to fix our children’s unpleasant feelings, shuffling them through mad, sad, or frustrated, driven by a goal for them to be happy. We can choose to cancel that goal and offer a safe space for children to feel all of their emotions. To satiate their brainstem and limbic regions and to nurture their higher-level learning brain, our children need to feel safe to feel all their many feelings --- to be heard and validated even as we limit, lead and guide.
Giving our power away
"You make me so mad … happy … sad.” Anytime “you make me” comes before an emotion, it sends the message that other people have more control over our emotional states than we do. In truth, we may be feeling some big, unpleasant emotions and someone may be the trigger of those feelings, but ultimately those feelings are our own...and owning our feelings is empowering. When we teach our children this important concept starting as young as even just ages one, two and three, they feel powerful.
Gender development is a critical part of learning for a child and, often, books and other media provide role models for children in defining standards for masculine and feminine behaviors. Unfortunately, many classic children’s books and even some contemporary stories frequently portray boys and girls in terms of specific socially defined gender norms. These narrow generalizations can limit a child’s potential growth and development. In today’s world, anyone can be anything and that is an important message to spread!
Being separate from our feelings
Sometimes the message of who we are is stated in the way we feel. For example, “I am disappointed” is different than “I feel disappointed.” Feelings are important and valid, yet we are not our feelings. Emotions are fluid and temporary. When you say “I am” followed by an emotion, the brain creates a neural pathway that identifies with what you said as if it is something you are rather than what you feel temporarily in the moment. Recognizing the emotion as a temporary state greatly reduces the power of the emotion. There is who we are and then there is what we feel. It is a subtle difference but an important lesson.
Many stories have interesting paradoxes that send narrow messages to children. For example, some suggest that being brave is the same thing as emotional repression when, in reality, you can feel scared AND be brave simultaneously. As humans we are layered: we can feel sad and grateful, feel confused and open. The more we celebrate these layers, the more we will love ourselves and celebrate the layers in others. We can choose to ditch the “but” and celebrate the “and”.
With a bookshelf full of books and a head full of childhood songs, I wondered, now what?! How do I make the shift? Do I toss them all out and start anew? Nope, but I did take some helpful steps.
3 things to align books with positive parenting
Tip #1: Gear towards books that send the messages you do want to send
Read through books beforehand and see if they represent the lessons you want to teach. This might sound like captain obvious, but humor me, because when I went through our bookshelf and the books we'd just brought home from the library, I found that I myself was not doing this!
So I went through and sorted our books and rediscovered many with messages I love. Some of our favorite books include The Color Monster, I Am Peace, The Rabbit Listened, Grumpy Monkey, and What To Do With A Problem. And the few I found myself questioning, like some of the Llama Llama books, I tucked away to be donated.
Tip #2: Cross out words
Read through your favorite books at home and when you find a "pitfall," aka a limiting belief of one sort or another, edit the words to send a new, more inclusive and empowering message. Replace them with words that affirm their emotions, exercise gender neutrality and equality, and broaden their social and emotional skills. If you are renting books from the library, simply write the rewording on a sticky note instead as to avoid defacing the book for others.
Tip #3: Change the words as you read
For younger children, you might simply change the words as you read aloud, swapping in words and phrases that send the messages you want to send.
I hope sharing my experience has been helpful. I have since changed the wording in many of our books, purchased a few new books and even wrote a short one on craft paper with my son that we stapled together.
And, as for our song, that got a makeover too.
"You are my sunshine, my lovely sunshine. Sometimes I’m happy. Sometimes I’m gray. I hope you know dear, how much I love you. You are the sunshine in my day.”
I now feel confident in the words and messages I am sharing with my son when we read and sing. Our words matter. And it starts now, while our children are young.