brother and sister hugging

Our words have a profound impact on those around us. Whether we’re using our speech to build each other up or pull them down, the things that come out of our mouths are extremely powerful. If you or your children are struggling to choose uplifting and encouraging words, these tips will help you with taming the tongue and making it obedient to Jesus.

This article is part 4 in our five-part series: The Art of Navigating Relationships. Read the whole series by clicking the links below.

Last week, I had a How-did-my-walls-get-this-dirty kind of day. Our foster agency was coming over to redo our home safety report, and I wanted everything to sparkle! I found myself, knees pressed to the wood floors, scrubbing off fingerprints—or maybe they were toe prints? I don’t even know. One smudge rallied so hard against my efforts that it was like a caveman painting refusing to be erased from our home’s history.

So how did my walls get so dirty? Because people live here: little, dirty people and big, dirty people. This is our safe place, our ‘come as you are’ place. Let’s be real—our safest walls are always the messiest.

I may be a softy, but I don’t insist on showers the second my kiddos burst through the door from hours of bike-riding or soccer-playing or middle-school-surviving. I let them rest a bit. Breathe a bit. Eat a snack. Grab a drink. I let them just be. And although this is a picture of grace, it’s still not excusable for them to wipe a muddy cleat on my rug on purpose, or smudge a happy face on walls with their grubby fingers.

Often our relationships are treated the same way our lived-in homes are treated. The more intimate the relationship, the messier it can get. The safer we feel, the more careless we can become—especially with our tongue. 

There are days when my hubby comes home and I trample his spirit with thoughtless words, sarcastic comebacks, and hurtful eye rolls. Some days I witness my kiddos dragging emotional junk caked to their ego and wedged under insecurities, just to fling it straight at their siblings when they walk through the door. Words are said, feelings are hurt, and someone comes crying to Mom. And what do I do? Too often, I fight fire with fire. 

“Don’t you dare say that! Apologize right now! Go to your room!” And just like that, the course of our home is up in flames. 

James warns that, “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6, NIV). Sometimes the words I offer in reaction make things worse. The Holy Spirit is pressing me—You’re missing an opportunity here. 

My kids are giving me a glimpse of what’s going on inside their precious, human, hurting hearts. What if I used these moments to disciple as much as I discipline?

I’m struck by The Message Translation of Matthew 15:18-19a, “But what comes out of the mouth gets its start in the heart. It’s from the heart that we vomit up evil arguments.” When our children throw up, we scurry to clean up the mess. But what we really want to know is, what’s making them sick? Harsh words and attitudes don’t pollute the heart—they ooze from one. Mamas, if our kids have vomit collecting in their hearts, we need to help them.

So, how can we teach our kiddos (and ourselves) to take responsibility for checking the condition of our hearts when we enter our safe spaces? Here are four tips to get you started.

 

1. Set an Example

It’s simply human nature to mess up, but even more so, to sin. There’s no value in verbally ripping into my kiddos when their tongues threaten to set a fire. “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (Proverbs 10:19). I can’t set an example by warning, “The tongue has the power of life and death” (Proverbs 18:21a, NIV), and then pour death on them when a hurtful word slips out of their mouth. I need to control my tongue when I’m disciplining my children.

James gives us such a vivid picture of this: “If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things” (James 3:3-6).

When we hear our children hurting one another with their words, we mama bears have something to say about it! And this one rarely takes the time to put a bit in her mouth. But that’s just the thing—the bit should never come off in the first place. Without the intentional taming of our tongue, we’re wasting time wrestling a wild beast when we could be guiding our cubs down a better path.

One way to approach this is to be slow to speak, but also quick to stop. I’m not going to lie; this is hard and takes practice. Often, I jump in to stop an argument before I have a solution. I’ve decided it’s best to be honest with my children and say, “Stop talking right now. Mom needs a minute to think about the right thing to say.” Or, “Everyone needs to take a break from one another while I pray about how to approach this.” 

This models that it’s okay not to speak until you’ve had a moment to consider your words. It’s demonstrating practical wisdom—showing that we can come to Father God at any moment and ask Him for help.

On a personal level, my children have paid attention to my transparency in battling control of my tongue. They see that I’m not perfect, but I’m taking steps to surrender my struggles to Jesus. They are learning a spiritual discipline without being directly disciplined. I’ll often find myself praying, “Holy Spirit, give me Your words because mine are ugly right now.” He is always faithful.

 

2. Give Grace and Do-Overs 

Healthy homes cannot have discipleship without grace, and grace is not effective without discipleship. When one of my kiddos spills, it’s not something I stress over, but I don’t allow them to walk away without taking responsibility. However, when a bottle of Italian soda shatters on the tile floor, sharp glass threatening tender toes, you bet I’m going to announce that no one moves until I can help! 

Words can be like broken glass. If I overhear my children begin a sentence in a rude, hurtful, or disrespectful way, it’s okay to stop them from taking a step further. A straightforward approach is to initiate ‘in-the-moment’ do-overs. Below are some ways to redirect a conversation. (Some may work better than others, depending on the child’s age.)

“Please stop. You need to rephrase that.”

“I know you’re mad, but is there another way you can tell your sister how you’re feeling?”

“You’re such a kind, smart kid. I know you can choose better words than that. Try again.”

“Let’s start this whole conversation over. One, two, three, go!”

This may seem simplistic, but I love it for many reasons. It helps our children to build holy habits, it reminds them they have control over their words, and they get to experience God’s grace through the opportunity to try again. 

 

3. Bring Awareness

If do-overs aren’t effective, it may be time for a private heart-to-heart with your child. A good place to start is by gently bringing to their attention things that may be fueling their behavior. For example, we can bring awareness by asking questions such as:

Why do you think you just said that?”

How did you feel after saying that?” 

“Did anything happen at school this week that made you sad/mad?” 

“Is there anything you want to talk about?” 

“Have you watched any new TV shows or played any new video games this week? What books have you been reading, or what music have you been listening to?”

Whatever our kids spend the most time doing, thinking, and caring about during the week, is where their hearts will land. And above all else, as Proverbs 4:23 reminds us, we want to teach them to “guard [their] hearts, as everything [they] do flows from it” (NIV).

Perhaps you will realize together that it’s time to eliminate some of the media they are watching. With one of our children, we realized it was a situation at school fueling some negative behavior at home. But my husband and I had no idea until we took the time to have a much needed heart-to-heart conversation with them to address problems with the tongue. 

 

4. Give Guidance

Remember, it’s not the words we should be hurrying to mop up—it’s the ‘vomit’ collecting in our hearts. So how do we clean their hearts? That sounds like a profoundly difficult task, and in all honesty, we can’t. But we are disciple-makers! We can guide them to the One who can clean their hearts. 

Peter tells us that our hearts are purified by faith (Acts 15:9). And if we want our kiddos to grow in faith, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Taking it one step further, John tells us that Jesus is the Word (John 1:1).

So mamas, if you’re wondering if it’s worth the time to read the Word with your kiddos, consider these truths: It grows their faith, purifies their hearts, and leads them straight to the Person of Jesus Christ, the ultimate heart cleaner-upper. 

Another way to carry our children straight to Jesus is by praying with them. Jeremiah reminds us of God’s promise, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13, NIV). Prayer offers direct access to God’s comfort, peace, love, and wisdom. What better place to guide our children toward?

***

If we don’t teach our kids (and ourselves!) how to heart-check amid bubbling emotions, we’ll be spewing all over our beloved home, asking, “How did our walls get so dirty?!” When we’re intentional in helping our kiddos train their tongues, we’re profoundly weaving together grace and discipleship, working together with God. It’s a worthy calling.

 

Which of Jenna’s practical suggestions encouraged or inspired you the most as you seek to check the condition of your kids’ hearts and tame their tongues?

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