Taming the Wild Tongues in Your Family
Here’s help if you’re concerned about how your children talk to you and to each other.
What would it be like to share your home with a lion, a cobra, a grizzly bear, and a grumpy pit bull who all suffer from persistent migraine headaches? Believe it or not, there’s a housing situation that’s much worse. The beasts roam freely there too, but the ferocious creatures are neither tame nor trained. Although the greatest of animal trainers have tried to restrain them, these snarling monsters refuse to submit. Leashes and bridles are of no use—they are just tasty snacks to chew up.
In our home we know all about these wild and uncontrollable brutes. We’ve had as many as eight of them at once prowling through our house. And we must inform you, several of these untamable beasts are lurking in your home, too. Don’t let down your guard. Stay alert. The wild tongues are running loose!
James, the brother of Jesus, wrote a description of these venomous vipers: “For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed, and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:7-8).
James also reported, “The tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.…With it 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” (James 3:6, 9-10).
The Scriptures don’t lie. We’ll never tame the tongues we live with, ours included. But these wildest of beasts can be corralled and, over time and with diligent, persistent effort, trained to deliver blessing rather than poison.
The tongue is a wild beast in anyone, but it becomes especially deadly in preadolescents and teenagers. The pressure to curse and to make sarcastic, critical comments is enormous, especially for junior high boys. Ask your child about the pressure to swear and to cut others down (called “cut-downs”), and he’ll tell you, “everyone does it.”
As we raised our six children and observed other families, we saw two ways in which children struggle to control their tongues. The first is disrespect to parents. We may look back on our generation and see that as parents, we gave our children far too much freedom to grumble and speak their mind. Remember when children were “seen and not heard”? We’ve swung too far in the opposite direction when we allow our teenagers to show disrespect at the expense of adults without being disciplined and corrected.
The second area is sibling rivalry. We wish we had a 10-dollar bill for every sibling skirmish we’ve seen in the Rainey household. Our children verbally sparred over such life-changing issues as:
- Who gets to sit in the front seat of the car
- Who got the biggest slice of mom’s homemade apple pie
- Who has had the most friends over to the house, or who had a friend over to spend the night at the house last
- Who made the mess and who cleaned it up last
- Who had permission to wear what: “She never asked to wear my blouse.”
- Who got more freedom when he was growing up
The good news is that a tongue trained and harnessed by the Holy Spirit becomes a powerful beast of blessing. A tamed tongue will sing praises and offer wisdom and encouragement. A trained tongue can comfort those who mourn and offer kindness to a stranger. With such a tongue we can confess Christ and offer words of love to a spouse, a child, a parent, a friend, even an enemy.
While seeking to control the rambunctious tongues on the loose in our home, here are a couple of convictions that have been our guide:
1. Since mutual respect is the foundation of all healthy relationships, how we relate as a couple and speak to our child is the best model of the pleasing use of the tongue.
If you hope to control the wild tongues in your family, first you must clean up your own speech. For example, how Dad speaks to Mom and vice versa—and how both speak to the children—must set the course. If the parents speak respectfully to one another, they can then expect their children to do the same.
Cursing is clearly wrong. But what about slang words that are right on the edge of gutter language? And what of other toxins of the tongue, like gossiping or criticizing people behind their backs? Do our preadolescents and teens hear us using unwholesome speech to describe our neighbors or coworkers? What comments do they hear us making regularly about the boss or the pastor or the governor? What do we say when somebody cuts us off in traffic or dumps trash on our yards? Do we obey God’s commandment to honor our own parents (Exodus 20:12) or do we grumble about the burden they’ve become?
The book of Proverbs is full of admonitions on the use of the tongue. Here are just two to keep in mind:
“The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence” (10:11).
“With his mouth the godless man destroys his neighbor, but through knowledge the righteous will be delivered” (11:9).
2. Because life and death are in the power of the tongue, our child’s tongue must be trained to bring life.
As a couple you need to determine where you are going to draw the line on your adolescent’s use of his tongue. What kind of tone do you want to set in your home? Will you allow a child to speak to another child disrespectfully without being penalized? Will you punish the cut-downs in your family? Will you have boundaries for inappropriate anger? If so, what will those boundaries be?
Will you and your spouse back each other and take the time to train your preteen and teen in the use of this wild beast (his tongue)? As the author of Proverbs noted, the stakes are large: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21).
Training your children
What principles must your child learn so that the tongue is an instrument for building others up instead of cutting them down? Here are several convictions to consider.
Child’s Conviction 1: I must understand how my words impact others—for good or for evil.
As repulsive as cursing may be, the other acidic mayhem caused by the tongue is just as bad. As preadolescents and young teens develop more refined reasoning skills, their ability to put down and cut down others increases. A child must be taught that cutting others down in any way demeans people and is repulsive because every person is made in the image of God.
Child’s Conviction 2: I must learn how to control my tongue so that my words bring life and blessing to others.
What’s the nicest thing anyone ever said to you? How did those words make you feel? Mark Twain used to say that he could live for two months off a good compliment. That’s the positive power of a Spirit-controlled tongue used to bless others.
For most of us, it takes years of training to shape the tongue into a reliable instrument of blessing. Young children have absolutely no clue as to how to speak appropriately. The young child’s tongue is born wild and is prone to saying things in public like, “Look Mommy! That man is so fat!”
Demonstrate how to compliment and encourage others, and then train your child how to do the same. You might, for example, go around the dinner table and have everyone say one or two positive things about each person in your family.
This repetitive training to tame the tongue is exasperating and exhausting. Many parents, often in their child’s early adolescence, feel the task is hopeless, and they back off and quit correcting and training. This starts a trend toward mediocre behavior instead of the pursuit of holiness.
Above all, help your child understand that as destructive as the tongue can be, it also has tremendous power for good. We all need to cultivate the art of encouraging and praising others. What a beautiful gift this will be throughout life!
Child’s Conviction 3: My words are a reflection of the condition of my heart.
Do you remember when it was considered impolite to use a curse word in public? Educated, polite people just didn’t swear—especially in front of a woman. A couple of generations ago, Rhett Butler’s use of a mild-these-days swear word in Gone With the Wind caused an uproar. Now four-letter words are commonplace in movies, television, and radio—and in our culture. That makes it even more difficult for your preteen or teen to refrain from such language.
Child’s Conviction 4: The words I use show respect or disrespect for my parents and others.
The one thing I knew I could never get away with was speaking disrespectfully to my mother. I knew my dad would make me pay. Coupled with my love for my mom, that healthy fear was a strong dose of preventative medicine as I related to her.
It’s especially important for dads to stand firm against teenage boys who try to use “tough guy talk” to intimidate their mothers. After years of looking up to his mom, a young teenager may suddenly realize he’s now taller and heavier, and he may even think he’s smarter. A few years ago I needed to step in strongly to admonish one of our sons who was not showing respect to Barbara. “You need to understand,” I told him, “that you will not win. Because if I let you win in this deal, then you actually lose, because you will not have the character you need when you are an adult.”
As important as respect is, don’t jump on every negative comment by your child. Young people this age, trying out their enlarged ability to voice and hold more sophisticated opinions, will often say things that are foolish. They don’t believe it either. You need to smile and let much of it go—as long as no real harm is done to any person.
Watch instead for the particularly acid-toned comments, as well as for a pattern. If your child is talking down to you or using a critical tone consistently, this wild tongue must be tamed.
One Sunday, not long after one of our sons received his driver’s license at age 16, we were coming home from church and he was at the wheel. I said, “Son, you’re driving too fast.”
“No, I’m not—I’m driving okay,” he answered smugly, in typical teenager fashion.
We rode farther down the road, then Barbara piped up: “You went around that last curve a little fast, didn’t you?”
“Mom, I’m within the speed limit.”
Technically that was probably true, but he still took a 35-mile-an-hour curve faster than he should have with a car loaded with a large family.
Finally, we commented on his driving a third time. And he said arrogantly and angrily, “I am an experienced driver! Why are you on me like this?”
This little exchange not only bent truth and logic out of shape, but also was disrespectful. Because he had repeatedly shunned our observations about his driving, he was penalized. A two-week grounding from driving realigned his tongue, restored reason, and resulted in a sweeter tongue and more prudent driving approach.
It is good for you to decide in advance how you will deal with situations like this. If you have a plan, you will be better prepared to sidestep your own anger and not end up with a tongue problem of your own by spitting out some words you’ll regret.
We all have bad days, and sometimes as parents we just need to overlook negative comments. But if a grumpy, grumbling spirit persists within a child, it’s time to apply the Scripture. One tim we had our entire family memorize Philippians 2:14-15. Then, when any of us would start to moan and groan, someone would pipe up and say “How many things are we to do without grumbling?” All things!
Play the Decide in Advance game. Rehearse with your child how he will express himself when he
- Hits his thumb with a hammer
- Is called a geek at school
- Is told he is ugly or fat
- Is told he’s a wimp or a sissy
- Sees his brother or sister do something dumb and is tempted to cut them down
- A brother or sister cuts him down with “You’re such a nerd!”
Reward good behavior / penalize bad behavior with the following exercise. Put a designated number of dollar bills (I usually start with 10) in a jar. Every time your children go to war and can’t work it out by themselves, take a dollar out of the jar. Put a dollar into the jar when they go out of their way to be kind to one another or are able to work out a conflict. At the end of a designated time period—we usually go two weeks—the children get to split what is left in the jar. If their behavior is so bad that the money runs out, then we’ve dipped into our kids’ allowances.
Use special occasions to train kids how to use the tongue positively. Thanksgiving is a great opportunity for this. Ask each family member to write down five things he or she is thankful for, and encourage him to think about the others as he writes his list. Ask each person to share these aloud, then save the lists in a notebook for review the next Thanksgiving.
Or on a person’s birthday, have each of the other family members share five things he appreciates about the person having the birthday. As he practices speaking positively to others, it will no longer feel so awkward to a teen.
Sometimes as a parent you will think there is never any light at the end of the tunnel. But our boys are living proof that two totally opposite siblings—who shared a room for 18 years and fought over everything for well over 10 years—can not only tame their tongues but also become the best of friends.
When Samuel was in college, he stood up at a campus gathering of 300 Christian students and began to praise his brother for his courage—Benjamin had decided to take a year out of college and go on a year-long mission trip to share Christ with college students in Estonia. Samuel publicly thanked his brother for his friendship, encouragement, and the life he had modeled. He began to weep as he shared how much he loved Benjamin and how he was going to miss him.
Barbara and I shook our heads in amazement when we heard that story, realizing our prayers over so many years were being answered.
Adapted from Parenting Today’s Adolescent: Helping Your Child Avoid the Traps of the Preteen and Teen Years. Copyright 1998 by Dennis and Barbara Rainey. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson, Inc., Publishers.