Teachable Words

A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.  The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.  Proverbs 15: 1-2

The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.  Proverbs 15: 28

The wise of heart is called discerning, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness.  Proverbs 16:21.

One of the greatest frustrations for parents is training up a child who lacks a teachable spirit. Actually a know-it-all, whether he is 5 or she is 85, is not a fun person to be around.

One of the most influential ways we encourage or discourage a teachable heart is the manner in which we address mistakes.  Criticism – looking at things as they are and pointing out faults – denotes disapproval and prompts a child (or any recipient) to fester inside with shame and anger.  Criticism encourages a child to avoid a relationship out of fear of being disapproved of.  (It works the same in a marriage).    Critical words are rarely teachable words because they tend to be met by walls erected to ward off the sting and deflect the blow.

Criticizing others is often self serving. Oswald Chambers said it like this:   “Criticism serves only to make us harsh and leaves us with the soothing and flattering idea that we are somehow superior to others.”  Criticizing and scolding are easy ineffective short cuts in disciplining children.

Correction on the other hand is about taking something away and replacing it with something better.  It recognizes what is wrong but focuses on what is expected, turning the focus to who you desire your child to become rather than on how they are presently acting.   Correction is about teaching what is desirable and less likely to be tuned out because it gives a child a means by which to regain approval.

Most of us understand the negative aspect of criticism when it comes to addressing deep issues of the heart but we fail to see the impact of  “nattering”  – a constant nipping away at your child, chattering about minor irritations.  It sounds like this:   “Don’t pick your nosewatch where you are going –pick up your clothes – don’t hit your sister- be quiet – I told you not to pick your nose – don’t run in the house –  you forgot to pick up your clothes – don’t spill your water- stop running –  etc.” This can actually serve to make kids nervous and even worsen behavior as they learn to just tune the chatter out.

We need to speak less and measure our words carefully, saying what we mean and in addition meaning what we say!  The “teachableness” of our words does not come by way of volume or frequency, rather by way of wise consideration and careful timing.

In The Heart of Anger, Lou Priolo quotes H. Clay Trumball who in 1891 wrote in Hints on Child Training:  “To scold is to assail or revile with boisterous speech.  The word itself seems to have a primary meaning akin to that of barking or howling.  Scolding is always an expression of a bad spirit and a loss of temper…the essence of scolding is in the multiplication of hot words in expression of strong feelings that, while eminently natural, ought to be held in better control.  If the child has done wrong, a child needs talking to; but no parent ought to talk to a child while that parent is unable to talk in a natural tone of voice, and with carefully measured words.  If the parent is tempted to speak rapidly, or to multiply words without stopping to weigh them, or to show an excited state of feeling, the parent’s first duty is to gain entire self-control….In giving commands or in giving censure to a child, the fewer and the more calmly spoken words the better.  A child soon learns that scolding means less than quiet talking; and he even comes to find a certain satisfaction in waiting silently until the scolder has blown off the surplus feeling which vents itself in this way.  There are times, indeed, when words may be multiplied to advantage in explaining to a child the nature and consequences of his offense, and the reasons why he should do differently in the future; but such words should always be spoken in gentleness, and in self-controlled earnestness.  Scolding – rapidly spoken censure and protest, in the exhibit of strong feeling- is never in order as a means of training and directing a child.”


  1. Thank you for this timely reminder. I’ve had a day where my two-year-old has me ready to cry…or scream, and my husband is late coming home from work. It’s so appropriate for the moment, as I currently listen to him cry in a time-out! Thank you for the encouragement to seek the strength of God as I relate to my son!

  2. It’s so easy as a mom to scold and critisize instead of correct. Thank you for the reminder.

  3. Dear Ellen, I’m beginning to think that someOne is behind your commitment to us parents who have hearts to hear what you have to say. Here I go again, needing to forward this article to another mother who struggles w/ similar issues with her son as I. It requires more than I have in me to respond w/ a soft answer, but I have truly been making an effort in practical ways to respond softly, the chief one being prayer that the Lord will help me accomplish what I absolutely cannot do without His help. I have years of practice in answering or speaking w/ sarcasm, defensiveness, etc. . It is a horrible habit, but I do think I’m beginning to see change in that I’m feeling ashamed of it sooner, and I’m quicker to apologize and correct it….while I’m simultaneously holding back my pride like a damn. Unfortunately this week, a family member quickly reacted to my son with sarcasm. I’m now praying about what to do, or say to them. The combination of child rearing philosophies within the context of family, and extended family are really challenging. Seems I can use the advice you give us here for our children, with friends and family as well. Thank you, Ellen, for your time communicating your thoughts and beliefs on these vital issues. I couldn’t believe the title to today’s article given what was my primary struggle w/ my child this week!!! Thank God for that someOne! 😉

  4. Correction vs. Criticism! So similar and easy to confuse in practice, but you brought out the very evident implications of each!

    Pray for us; we will be working on this.

  5. Great advice for everyone. Thanks again for your excellent reminder!

  6. I should read this every day. It is so hard at times to keep my tone and what I am saying calm in the heat of the moment. More often I probably need to not speak at all until I can be more restrained. Thanks for your insight.

  7. Yes, great advice! I think I must sound like a broken record to my children each day. I don’t think even I’m hearing what I’m saying anymore. I’ve forgotten that I should be “training” them…not just spouting off a chain of commands. That’s certainly not getting me anywhere. Thank you for such a meaningful reminder.

  8. can i just tell you how much i LOVE your blog and just adore you, even though i do not know you and have never met you! A dear friend who attends veritas passed along your blog to me…and wow! You are a gem of wisdom and a refreshment to me as a mom of 3 young souls. Thank you for your willingness to share, direct, exhort and encourage. I am blessed.



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