August 7, 2019

Spare the Red

I remember laughing out loud in one of my teacher-training classes over 20 years ago when the professor recommended not using red pen to correct student papers. He maintained that red is a “negative” color and that using it to mark up student work would stifle their motivation and self-esteem. Shortly thereafter, when I got my first job, my principal included “no use of red pens” among his rules for new teachers.

Perhaps someone had done psychological studies about the “damage” caused by red ink. Absent such evidence, though, I, frankly, thought the whole thing was silly. However, using colors other than red was a condition of my employment, so I took to using green and purple; by the time I transferred to a new school without that stricture, the habit was ingrained and has even stayed with me through my years homeschooling my daughters. Thus, though my girls tease me relentlessly – they think it’s silly too and assure me that they won’t be scarred by seeing red ink on their rough-draft essays and math pages – I’ve stuck with other-than-red all these years.

And, in a way, maybe there is something to it. I don’t believe red to be a “negative” color. But by not using it every day related to everyday tasks, maybe my students and kids haven’t been desensitized to it. Thus, when they do see red, maybe they pay close attention, knowing that whatever is marked in red must be extra important.

The same is true of our words. We’re busy, imperfect human beings so we can’t monitor and moderate every word that comes out of our mouths. But what would happen if we would purpose to use “red” words sparingly instead of regularly?

“No” is a good example. I don’t believe saying “no” damages children; kids need boundaries, after all. However, if we use it continually in regular everyday situations rather than seeking alternatives, I think we might desensitize kids to its use, making it less effective when we really need it (i.e., when a child is seconds away from touching a hot stove or running into the street). In non-emergency situations, can we choose to begin replacing auto-pilot “no” with more helpful, relationship-based communication (i.e., “I’m sorry, hon. We can’t have ice cream now because dinner is in half an hour.”)? I think we can.

The same goes for all our communication with children. The goal isn’t to stifle us into political correctness; red ink is not inherently evil! But when we keep our actual end-game in mind – helping the kids in our lives to grow and mature into joyful, healthy, productive adults – why wouldn’t we aim to use positive, instructive, and specific language as much as possible? In doing so, we’ll provide a positive model for our kids to emulate, we’ll deepen our relationships with them, and we’ll maintain the impact of red-letter words for when they’re truly necessary.


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