The gift of words and how they impact us.

Guest Blogger
Linda Kavelin Popov

In the last week of his life, my father gave me a gift I had yearned for since childhood.  Like most parents of his generation, he thought that pointing out flaws and mistakes would shape my character and give me “backbone”. He believed that praise was unnecessary, even harmful. His criticisms, though well intentioned, left a deep scar, still tender whenever I receive a hint of criticism, especially from my intimates.

Looking frail, my father gathered the family around him, and spoke words of praise we had never heard before. I was stunned by the strength he saw in me, his appreciation for my compassion and my service.
The childhood chant, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” is a lie. Words can break our hearts. When our words are weighty, we need to weigh our words. We are mirrors to our children of who they are. The words we use about them have a profound effect on how they see themselves.

Like so many others, I walked around for years with a harsh inner critic that would yammer at me at the slightest mistake, creating feelings of unworthiness, of not ever being good enough.  Because I wanted life to be better for my children, I slipped into “opposititis” --  over-praising them, justifying their mistakes, indulging their willfulness, and failing to give them sufficient discipline, leaving them with a life-long struggle for self-discipline.

Our real job as parents and teachers is to mentor our children, empowering them to be the best people they can be, not by shaming or indulging them, but by encouraging the virtues of their character. The world’s sacred traditions describe virtues as the essence of our character and the qualities of our souls. Virtues resonate as no other words can. Naming someone’s courage, kindness, caring, or self-discipline is a powerful catalyst for authentic self-esteem.

The Language of Virtues helps us to break the cycle of negativity in labeling children or ourselves. It replaces name-calling words like “stupid”, “lazy”, or “mean” by calling them to their virtues. It gives us a new way to respond when we are frustrated or disappointed by finding the virtue in each teachable moment.  Here are four ways to use the Language of Virtues to bring out the best in our children -- at any age:

  1. See the Good: Catch them in the act of committing a virtue. “It was kind of you to help Josh with his back-pack.” “You’re showing a lot of patience waiting to come home.”

  2. Always acknowledge improvement. “You were peaceful today. You only had two fights instead of six.”

  3. Use virtues to correct. “I’ll listen to anything you have to say as long as you say it respectfully.”  “Even when you’re angry, I expect you to use your peacefulness. Use your voice to say how you feel.”

  4. Be Clear: Tell them what you DO want, not what you DON’T want. “Please walk! Be considerate and keep everyone safe at the pool.”

I close most conversations with my sons or my husband with an expression of love and more importantly, an appreciation for some virtue I see. “You sound really determined.” “I love your passion for excellence in your job.” “Thanks for your thoughtfulness.”  It is deeply healing to acknowledge ourselves for our virtues as well, and to transform our internal critic into a gentle instructor that encourages us to keep growing our virtues.

Let’s take a moment to offer a precious gift to the ones we love, one that costs us nothing but is absolutely priceless. “Have I ever told you what I admire about you?” Find a virtue or two that’s just right and let them have it.

Linda is the author of The Family Virtues Guide and co-founder of The Virtues Projecttm .  She is a highly sought after international speaker on personal and global transformation.  

Learn more about the Virtues Project by visiting their website at See for a list of virtues definitions.


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