My sister-in-law Jerra wanted to teach her daughter, Natalie, to say, “yes, Ma’am” and “no Ma’am” when speaking to adults, but for some reason Jerra couldn’t get her to stop saying “yep” and “nope.” When it came down to disciplinary action, Jerra quickly found out why her little girl was so ingrained—Natalie started pointing out every time Mom and Dad said the forbidden words. Turns out it was quite often.

“Having toddlers, you start to discover things you say over and over again,” Jerra said. “You’ll be amazed to find out what you say all the time and don’t even know it.”

That got me thinking about my own speaking habits.

My son is not quite 2, and he’s already starting to pick up parts of my speech. For example, I’m always finishing my sentences with, “Okay?”. Like, “I’m going to get your lunch ready, okay?”. So now he runs around looking at me saying, “Okay? Okay?”.

The other day, my husband and I were in the car talking about how we needed to start paying attention to what our son hears on the radio and television. Just as we said that, “Happy Together” was playing on the radio and we heard from the backseat, “Happy!”

I wondered what other things I say all the time that my little boy might pick up on. I really started listening to myself, and I have to admit, I didn’t like some of the language I heard. I found I use the ugly word “hate” a lot:

“I hate cold rainy days.”

“I hate wasting time.”

“I hate long lines.”

Do I really want my son to go around saying he hates things?

I also discovered the words hey, stupid, and I don’t think so. Imagine how I would feel as a parent if I heard my son say to my church friends, “This toy is stupid!” or to his teacher, “Hey! Can I go to the bathroom?” If I don’t change my bad speech habits, it’s highly likely that he will say things exactly like that.

The Bible talks about the virtues of disciplined speech. James 3:9-10 is the flagship of tongue training:

With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. (NASB)

Proverbs is another book that is full of advice for the tongue. For example, this message from Proverbs 12:18-19:

There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Truthful lips will be established forever, but a lying tongue is only for a moment.

The way we use words is a reflection of our hearts. In Matthew 12:34, Jesus said, “ … the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.” The things we say, the words we use, and the attitudes with which we communicate not only reflect who we are to others, but they also set an example for our children.

How to tame your tongue

Like it or not, children want to be just like their parents. If I want my son to be respectful of his elders, speak with kindness, and think before he speaks, then I must learn to be a good example. The tongue isn’t easy to tame. James calls it “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). But there are things we can do to help keep the tongue in its place. Here are four actions I have found that help.

1. Check my heart. As I mentioned before, Jesus warned us that the tongue and the heart are connected (Matthew 12:34). I can tell when I’m growing complacent in my walk with Christ because my language is more negative and unchecked. I hear myself complain more, become aggravated by little things, and throw more “pity parties,” as we call them. So I know it’s time to step up my devotionals, Bible reading, and, if possible, join Bible studies. The more I fill up my heart and mind with God’s words, the more godly principles flow through my life and filter out through my language.

2. Think before I speak. I have to stop letting words escape my lips before I know what I’m saying. This is especially important for habitual words, like “stupid” and “hate.” I only say them to emphasize what I’m feeling, but Proverbs 18:2 says, “A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions” (NIV). If I take the time to think about my words, I can find kinder and more accurate ways to communicate those feelings. That means talking slower so I can think first, letting some space fill the conversation, and being purposeful about the words I choose.

3. Keep reminders around. Scriptures on the fridge and in the car remind me about the importance of speech. James 3 and the book of Proverbs are full of convicting quips. I also have a book I like to read regularly when my tongue gets out of control called Beauty Care for the Tongue by LeRoy Koopman, which includes a study guide for deeper learning.

4. Replace bad with good. As the old saying goes, “There is always something good to say.” In almost every situation, there is good and bad. Instead of immediately verbally attacking the negative side of everything, we can choose to emphasize the good. I’m not suggesting that we make up something positive or lie about our opinions to cover up our true feelings. But there is a way to sincerely compliment the forgotten or overlooked positive attributes. It’s a matter of choosing to see the good. Some people would call this “optimism.” I call it “graciousness.”

A beautiful tongue, a beautiful legacy

I like what Koopman says about the beauty of the tongue in the opening statements of his book:

How beautiful is your tongue?
Or haven’t you ever really considered your tongue in terms of its attractiveness?
You don’t look at it very often in the mirror.
You don’t go on shopping trips for it.
You don’t have a weekly appointment at the tongue beautician.
Avon and Revlon don’t sell cosmetics for it.
You don’t have to diet to get it back in shape.
Men don’t ogle it or whistle at it or write poems about it.
It doesn’t appear on the centerfold of Playboy.
Yet it is your tongue, more than the form of your face, or the dimensions of your
figure, or the lavishness of your wardrobe, or the size of your income, which
determines whether or not you are a beautiful person.

When it comes to our children, we are often concerned about their future well-being. Many people set up monetary accounts for education, starting a home, even future vehicles. Yet, the way a child speaks is just as important for success in life, and it’s often the most overlooked.

The way a person uses his tongue determines what kind of person he is. It can hurt or heal, bring freedom or bondage, and the way we wield this weapon can be passed down to our children and affect their lives. It’s more important than any monetary advantage we can give them.

I want my legacy to be one of a beautiful tongue—one of grace, mercy, and kind truthfulness. But in order to pass down these skills, I must begin speaking that way right now, even before my children can form sentences on their own. Just as I want them to learn to walk upright, obey their parents, and love their neighbors, I also want them to learn to use one of their most powerful weapons—the tongue—for the good of others. And it begins now.

Copyright © 2010 by Sabrina McDonald. All rights reserved. Used by permission.