Watch Your Tone, Little Mama

These days I do more than my fair share of delivering speeches to large groups of people. In fact, I’ve studied the art of giving powerful presentations for decades. However, I never once thought about applying the lessons learned to my role as a mother.

Until this week, when my son took some of my tried-and-true advice and threw it back in my face. And it hurt.

You see, one way to make sure you give a stellar speech is to use a technique that’s referred to as vocal variety — meaning: using the tone of your voice to add extra meaning to the words that are coming out of your mouth.

Let me give you an example and you give it a whirl. Take a look at the following sentence and decide how you’d say each one out loud based on the various underlying meanings.

  • (You think the opera is lame.) “John is taking Karen to the opera on Monday.”
  • (You think Karen is a loser.) “John is taking Karen to the opera on Monday.”
  • (John is going to kill Karen.) “John is taking Karen to the opera on Monday.”

See how it works? The same sentence would sound very different based on the thoughts going through your mind at the time.

All great presenters milk this extra layer of communication every chance they get. They’re not robots standing on a stage reciting lines; they infuse the meaning behind their words into the actual words themselves. What’s the lesson here?

How you say what you say is just as important as what you’re actually saying.

Sure, this is true when watching a great orator at the top of their game, but it’s also true in everyday, less-rehearsed conversations as well. For example, when you and your girlfriend are gabbing on the phone, can’t you just feel in your bones exactly how she feels about her husband, her boss, the new PTA president or her latest attempt at bangs? The way she stretches out, shortens and emphasizes certain words gives her true feelings away.

Well, fortunately (or unfortunately, in my case) the same is true when you speak to your children.

Last Tuesday my son’s bedtime rolled around and I was T-I-R-E-D. I was ready for the day to be over, I wasn’t looking forward to the bedtime routine and I really had to pee. While taking 30 seconds of alone time to empty my bladder, he summoned me to his bedroom by calling my name, “Mommy!”

I immediately responded, “I’ll be right there, Alex!” which I thought was a perfectly appropriate response, until I crawled into bed with a sad-faced child as he whimpered, “It hurts my feeling when you speak to me in that mad tone.”


He went on to explain that although he heard me say, “I’ll be right there,” he could tell that I didn’t want to be there by the angry tone in my voice. He even said it felt worse than when I yelled at him.

Yikes. But, you know what? He was right. Thinking back to the exercise you did above, what kind of vocal variety do you think I applied (or you might apply) to those five seemingly harmless words?

  • (This is the best part of my day. I love you.) “I’ll be right there, Alex.”
  • (I’ve been dreaming of this day since I was your age.) “I’ll be right there, Alex.”
  • (Leave me alone, you pesky, annoying child.) “I’ll be right there, Alex.”

Fascinating, isn’t it? I could try to defend myself to him all night long. What are you talking about? I simply said I’d be right there. Geez, relax Kiddo. But he was right and it was clear to him exactly how I felt about putting him to bed that evening.

My words might have said I’ll be right there, but my tone of voice said I’d rather be anywhere but there.

What a fascinating way to re-learn a lesson I learned long ago. The next time you’re answering your child’s call, question or ridiculous inquiry, don’t forget that they’re soaking up not just your words, but the feeling behind those words.

No pressure or anything.

I’m not suggesting all kids are angels and need to be coddled when spoken to. Believe me, when I want to yell, I yell. I’m just saying that tone of voice matters and we might as well be aware of the extra level of communication that’s spewing out of our mouths and into others’ ears.

Moving forward, I’m going to try my best to take a deep breath before responding to my children when I’m exhausted so I can tame this tone of mine down.

All great accomplishments begin with the courage to try. Here goes!

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