Advice & Features Articles

Life and Death are in Your Words

By Jeff Willie | Contributor

In life, you don’t get what you want, you get what you expect. The key word is “Expectations.”  Your word choice and your nonverbals like body language determine your expectations. What do you expect from your children? What are the modeling behaviors your children are seeing?   What are the words you are speaking into your children’s lives? There is life and death in words.  

I am reminded of my eighth-grade math class a few years ago (1972) in a small school district in East Texas. It was the second year this small school district was integrated with black and white students attending school together. Myself, plus four other 13- and 14-year-old African-American boys where behaving inappropriately in class.  Our math teacher needed to get our attention, which he did in a very inappropriate way. I quote, “You boys are STUPID; you are never going to amount to anything and do not take algebra in the ninth grade.” Yes, the teacher’s word choice was totally inappropriate, and it was wrong for him to speak those words to students or to anyone. Our teacher was operating from a low expectation paradigm for African-American boys.  His expectations of African-American boys or your expectations of your children become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

Most of us are familiar with a common childhood chant, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Obviously, we know that is not true. Words can cause long-term emotional harm that may impair an individual from reaching his or her full potential. Before speaking, take a few moments to contemplate what you will say and how you will say it, while considering the impact your words will have on the listeners. Kind words are always music to their ears. 

Educators/Parents: (1) are enthusiastic about their children and particular subject and see the connections to everyday life, (2) model expectations in language and actions, (3) have a commitment for continuous learning, (4) believe all children can learn at a high level, (5) value the many ways children/students communicate and engage and encourage different communication models, (6) respect and develop a productive relationship with students, parents, and guardians from different socio-economic backgrounds and diverse communities.

I agree with Madeline Hunter when she stated, “Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care!” Caring, belief, encouragement, and unconditional positive regard are the keys that unlock the heart and mind. Hearts and minds are opened in the home, in the classroom, in your circle of influence when there are caring parents, guardians, and educators who model and teach with passion and manage with compassion.  

Fast forward from 1972 to 1995. College algebra was a prerequisite for obtaining an associate degree from the Community College of the Air Force.  Because of the destructive language spoken to me by my 8th grade math teacher, college algebra was extremely difficult. I prevailed after four attempts and completed algebra because I refused to allow negative words spoken into my life to defeat me and handicap my full potential and future. I went on to serve 26 years in the United States Air Force, earn three associate degrees, a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, a graduate certificate in conflict mediation, and am pursuing my doctorate degree in educational leadership. I am a College Professor, Internationally Certified Leadership Coach, Leadership Trainer, Certified Educational Consultant, Conflict Resolution Trainer, and Motivational Speaker.  I’m an Honorary Colonel in the Arkansas State Police, Honorary Member of the Arkansas Highway Police, and a Certified Arkansas Law Enforcement Instructor in Rapid Response, Special Weapons, and Tactics (SWAT). My wife Pat and I have been married over 42 years; we raised two highly successful, beautiful daughters—our oldest is a pediatrician and our youngest is an attorney. 

While I am proof that your past does not determine your future—you determine your future—there are many children who do not overcome the harsh words spoken into their lives. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate, and to humble. Considering the power of the words we utter, we must discipline ourselves to speak to our children in a way that conveys respect, gentleness, and humility. We must model kindness and speak words that are beacons of inspiration, enthusiasm, and encouragement if we wish to set high expectations of our children.

Editor’s Note: Professor Jeff Willie is an executive leadership consultant, conflict resolution trainer, coach and motivational speaker with a passion to help individuals and businesses improve productivity, performance and profitability. Jeff earned our Very Inspiring Parent Award in 2018 (March/April), which chronicled his inspirational personal story. Reach Jeff at jeff@jeffwillie.com.

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