As a child, I thought a piano was like a sofa and that everyone had one in their living room. My grandparents played the piano and organ, my father played the piano, and my sisters and I started lessons at the age of 6. The tradition has continued with each of my boys starting on piano when they were 6 and adding instruments — such as violin, guitar, mandolin, and ukulele — along the way. Learning to play a musical instrument adds an incredibly rich dimension to the ability to express oneself. But the fact is, each of us has an instrument that we have been using, practicing, and fine-tuning since birth. It is the most powerful instrument we possess.
This instrument has the potential to express and evoke every human emotion. Its capacity to conjure images, instill fear, destroy confidence, create hope, provide comfort, and proclaim love is unparalleled. The instrument I have described is, of course, the voice.
The voice allows us to vocally express the activity that takes place in our brain. These focalizations may or may not be verbal, but they allow us to share our thoughts, feelings, and experiences. The voice takes what is internal and makes it external, making it possible for that which is individual and personal to become public and social.
As with all instruments, the ability to use our voice is governed by the brain. The mind has to think before the voice can speak. So, if you said it, you thought it, even if only for a split second. Therefore, our voice and how we use it are completely under our control.
Sometimes we don’t mean to say what we think, and this brings me to the subject of filters. Each of us has developed a set of personal filters through which information from the brain passes before being emitted from the mouth. We were not born with these filters. They are created as a result of what we have learned through the formal and informal training we receive from our family, community, school, religion, and culture. While our personal filters are unique to us, commonalities can certainly be observed within groups.
These filters mature and become sophisticated with age and experience. Some typical childhood filters include, “Always say please and thank you;” “Don’t talk back to your parents;” and “Don’t utter four-letter words.”
Older kids may add: “Speak respectfully to your elders;” “Certain topics are not to be discussed outside the family;” and “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
Our adult filters become more complex and differ depending on who we are speaking to and the circumstances. Hopefully we have learned, among other things, that while “Honesty is the best policy, it doesn’t mean being cruel;” and “Criticism is more readily received when combined with compliments and encouragement.”
With school back in session, whether we are parents of elementary, middle, high school, or college-age students, now is a good time to check, modify, and even change those vocal filters. Take the time to really listen to your own voice, your children’s voices, and the voices that your children are exposed to (friends, relatives, media, etc.), and determine whether some alterations are in order.
Ask yourself, how am I using my voice? What messages am I sending? Are they the messages I intend? What do I want my voice to stand for? What filters do I need to add or eliminate to achieve the results I desire?
Help your children through this same process of evaluating their voices. Share with them your observations from listening to them speak to you, their siblings, other family members, and friends. Encourage them to carefully consider how they currently use their voice. How do they want to use their voice? What kind of voice do they want to be known for? What kinds of alterations might they need to make in order to create the voice they desire?
Spend time together reflecting on the impact of the voices from outside your family such as television, internet, movies, social media, peers, school, and print media. What messages are these voices conveying? Are they messages that reinforce your family’s values? Do these voices act as incentives or deterrents in creating the voices you and your family desire? What filters need to be in place to assure that you have control over the impact of these voices?
Our voice is our most powerful instrument. It wields incredible influence, intentionally or unintentionally. That is why it is essential that we think before we speak — that we speak to invite understanding, to build and strengthen relationships, to inspire excellence.
As Benjamin Disraeli said, “There is no index of character so sure as the voice.”
Carolyn Waterbury-Tieman spent 15 years as a family therapist and parent educator. To contact her, please e-mail paren