Children are truthful and innocent: they tend to take the things they hear or see at face value. Parents and teachers therefore need to be very careful with what they say to children and ensure that their intentions are fully understood.

A father I know once told his eleven-year-old son: "If you fight with your sister one more time, I will punch you so hard that your teeth will fall out and you will need to pick them up from the floor." The father intended to give the message, "I will give you a strong punishment"; the child, however, took his words literally. For months and even years after this, each time he saw his father the child covered his mouth so that his teeth did not get punched out.

We cannot always control what our children hear from others; but we should at least ensure that what they hear from the most important people in their life — their parents and teachers — should be clearly understood, and not assume that they will discount the exaggerations or understand the hidden messages.

The following are some examples of ambiguous statements which children frequently hear:

When a mother says to a child, "Wait until your father comes home! He's going to punish you hard", the message the mother is intending to convey is, "I don't have the strength or the time to deal with you now." However, the message the child may receive is that the father is the wicked enforcer, which does not help build a positive father/child relationship. A clearer message could be, "Two heads are better than one. When your father comes home, we will deal together with the situation."

When a parent says to a child, "Why is it always you who's causing the trouble at the dinner table?" the message s/he is trying to convey is, "Something must be bothering you, because the other children are calm and well-behaved." The message the child may hear is that s/he is not as good as the others. A clearer message the parent may send is: "Please tell me what's bothering you during dinner time. Maybe we can find a solution to the problem, so that our meal times would be more peaceful."

A teacher may say to a student, "Your punishment is to write one hundred times, I will not forget my homework" .The message the teacher intends to convey is, "Remember to do your homework." However, the child may begin to associate writing with punishment and could end up disliking writing. Perhaps a clearer way to say it is: "Writing something many times helps to remember it. So to help you remember, write the message a hundred times." The student then regards writing as a tool for memory.

It is also important to respect the child's feelings. Telling siblings or other family members about the child's wrongdoing may cause embarrassment and low self-esteem, and make the child feel that his or her parents cannot be trusted. Remarks such as "Sara's room is always clean" or "Adam is always on time," do not help to build our children's self esteem.

It is wise to have the child feed back to us what he understood our message to be, thereby ensuring that the message we intended to give was what was actually understood by the child.

"Sages, be careful with your words" (Ethics of the Fathers 1:11). When we are not sure if our communications would leave the child feeling bad about him/herself, the best policy is simply not to say it. We should strive, in our communication with children, to convey clear messages which will leave them motivated, inspired, and feeling good about themselves.