“Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.” – Ephesians 4:29
Over the past year I have run across these words, on a few separate occasions, as suggested guidance for how we think about what we are going to say before we say it. When you look them up there are all sorts of variations on the theme with some using “necessary” instead of “helpful” and some using the acronym T.H.I.N.K. (true, helpful, inspiring, necessary, kind).
I often find myself talking with my oldest son (just 6) about something he just said and trying to help him understand why perhaps it wasn’t the right thing to say. For as long as he has been able to understand, we have focused on kindness – as I think is right. Our family rule, if there has been one, is BE KIND. The concept of kindness is something kids can really begin to understand and simplistically sums up quite a lot of the ways in which our Lord would ask us to treat one another.
Not just hitting hurts…
When children our very young we often focus so much on how they physically act towards each other and us – “no biting, biting hurts” “please don’t take that toy away from him, he was using that” “please be gentle with your bodies”. When we are saying our prayers in the evening and my son is struggling to think of something he did that “Made God sad” (a blog post on that to come) I sometimes ask him – “Well, what makes God sad?” – He will list off – kicking, biting, hitting, not sharing and other various physical abuses. They seem to be drilled into him from younger years and now that he is much more likely to be teasing or perhaps have said something unkind or ungrateful it has become obvious to me that the time for focusing on the content of his speech is here.
When our children are babies we get so excited for them to speak. We adore the baby coos and babbles, the first words and funny mispronunciations. Then they begin to string two and even three words together. Listening to my 2 year old talk to himself and sing is a favorite past time of our whole family right now and brings endless entertainment, joy, and – yes – laughter. But then the real work begins. They know the words, but how do they know what to say?
They are listening to us…
The bible is very clear about the fact that our words hold tremendous power. We are told time and time again to keep watch over what we say and that we will be judged by the words we choose to utter. Obviously, children have economia and are still learning. We cannot and should not expect their words to be “always filled with grace” (Colossians 4:6). However, we should begin to teach them about the power of their words from the youngest age and we should know very well that they are looking and listening to how we speak with one another as an example. (As I write these words I have a flush of shame coming over me – Lord help me to speak with more grace and hold my tongue more, not only for the salvation of my own soul, but in the necessary work I do to bring my children to you, walking in your path and light!)
Many have heard the old adage by American Author and U.U, Minister Robert Fulgham “Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.” This is so true. And they are LISTENING too… maybe not when you ask them to put on their shoes, but when you are arguing with your spouse or speaking to a customer service rep on the phone. I am always shocked by the words that my 4 year old daughter picks out of musical lyrics – and you can bet if that word is “stupid” or “hate” or “disgusting ” or another unkind word we don’t use in our house my kids pick up on it fast!
So where to begin…
So where does that leave us? Phew. It is a bigger subject than I even realized when I started writing. But there are tangible steps we can take. Where to start? Where we always do – with ourselves first and then our children.
1. Realizing, once again, the importance of every word we utter (in front of our kids or not – it is all in front of God) and owning up to our own impure speech in front of our children when it makes sense to do so.
2. Making sure that we listen careful to our children (when they are speaking to us and when they are not) and work to help them identify speech that is not salvific.
This second point is where we circle back to the three words we began with: True. Helpful. Kind. These are quite manageable and understandable concepts for small children. My older two already know them by heart after my trying this all out for a week. And the order is important too – I believe, since often we fall off at kind. At their age, my children aren’t lying so that is an easy yes. Helpful – maybe it was helpful to tell your grandmother that the noodles she cooked were too crunchy, perhaps. But kind … that is the crux. And it builds up the idea that there is more than just kindness we are striving for. We are striving for truth. We are striving to be of service. These things are all important – not just niceties all day long.
As to the origin of the phrase – it seems to date back to 1872 to a poem written by Mary Ann Pietzker in a book called Miscellaneous Poems – the cover of which I share here and the poem below:
“Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?”
Oh! Stay, dear child, one moment stay,
Before a word you speak,
That can do harm in any way
To the poor, or to the weak;
And never say of any one
What you’d not have said of you,
Ere you ask yourself the question,
“Is the accusation true?”
And if ’tis true, for I suppose
You would not tell a lie;
Before the failings you expose
Of friend or enemy:
Yet even then be careful, very;
Pause and your words well weigh,
And ask it it be necessary,
What you’re about to say.
And should it necessary be,
At least you deem it so,
Yet speak not unadvisedly
Of friend or even foe,
Till in your secret soul you seek
For some excuse to find;
And ere the thoughtless word you speak,
Ask yourself, “Is it kind?”
When you have ask’d these questions three—
Ask’d them in all sincerity,
I think that you will find,
It is not hardship to obey
The command of our Blessed Lord,—
No ill of any man to say;
No, not a single word.