What You Say Matters (Just Not in the Way You Expect!)

Quote_make_sure_that_your_children_dont_start_seeing_themselves_through_the_eyes_of_those_who_don't_value_themLet’s try something quick…

Let’s say you are responsible for putting together an event – a dinner party, a family gathering, a church fundraiser, a client meeting, a mini-conference… go ahead, pick something that works for you.

You are pretty pumped up about being responsible for the task. You are also a little nervous about how it will all turn out.

One day, while you are slogging your butt off and figuring out the nitty-gritty details, you walk into your co-event-planners and overhear them muttering – “She’s so bossy” (or “He’s such a dictator”) before they suddenly realize you’re in the room and change the topic.

You are pretty sure they were talking about you.

What would your attitude be going forward? Would you be as pumped up about it as before? Would you have second thoughts about the way you are going about handling the responsibility? Maybe scale down some of your grand plans a little?

Or maybe you would drive people a little harder just to prove a point?

Now let’s flip that situation a bit… what if you had overheard — “She (or He) is so cool and really knows how to get things done”.

What would your attitude be now as you move ahead with the project?

Essentially “Bossy” and “Dictator” mean the same thing — someone who is trying to get things done. Yet, because of the negative connotation these labels have, they leave a sour taste in your mouth, and undermine your ability to stay enthusiastic about the project anymore.

Now let’s step out of this hypothetical scenario and look into our homes.

How many times in a day do we label our kids in not so flattering ways?

“Gosh, just look at Janice… she’s got chocolate all over herself! What am I going to do with this messy child!”

“Billy left a marker on the sofa with the cap off! Look at that stain! What an irresponsible kid!”

“I was late to office again! Kate’s such a slow-poke… I wonder when that kid will learn the value of time!”

And on and on I could go. Some of this is not meant to be “labels” but they stick nevertheless – if nowhere else, then in the mind of the child who overheard it.

We don’t intend to be mean. We don’t intend to scar our children. And most often, we don’t even realize we are doing it.

Yet, it can have a huge impact on your child’s behavior for the rest of the day, and if a label sticks, then possibly the rest of his/her life!

Now, going back to that hypothetical event planning story, from the co-event-planners perspective – if they perceive you as “bossy” or a “dictator” they are less likely to feel motivated to work with you to put together a great event. On the other hand, if they think you really are a “leader” who can get this event done in a spectacular manner, chances are they will be clamoring to help you get there.

It is the same thing with us parents.

How we behave with our kids depends on what labels we see them through. If we look at them through the lens of negative labels, our response to their actions is likely to be more critical. When we look at them through the lens of positive labels, we are in a better position to be their champion, their cheer leaders.

In short, what we say matters — not just what we say to our kids, but what we say about them to others… and to ourselves. The labels we choose, either consciously or by default, can make a huge impact on how we parent and how our kids perceive themselves.

For this week, let’s take a look at labels and work on developing some positive ones for our kids.

The following exercise is inspired by the chapter “A Different Point of View” from the book Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. Have you read it? If not, I highly recommend the book, especially if you have a child that you view as “difficult”, “strong-willed” or “stubborn”. This book has had a huge impact on me and has been such an eye-opener, helping me a great deal in the way I view my child.

You don’t need to have read the book to participate in this week’s exercise though… I’ll assume you have not read the book and explain the parts relevant to this exercise. Of course, it goes without saying, the book has a heck of a lot more than what I can cover in one article and I’ll just be focusing on the “labels” part of it.

The author points out in the book that the labels we give our children can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Children learn who they are from others in their lives, most notably the parents. The labels we use convey to our children our view of them and the expectations we have of them, and they will act to those expectations irrespective of whether they are positive or negative.

Negative labels are not easy for the parents either. When parents think of their children through these negative labels, we feel

  • Fear about how the kids will turn out
  • Confusion about what we ought to do to “fix” the situation
  • Resentment towards the child for not meeting the standard societal expectations
  • Shame that we somehow screwed up
  • Embarrassment in the presence of others for our child’s behavior
  • Exhaustion of having to deal with it day in and day out
  • Anger that the situation turned out the way it did

So what can we do?

For starters, we can redesign those labels with a positive vision.

When kids overhear being referred to in positive ways, they will respond positively.

When we think of our kids in a positive way, we are better equipped to handle the situations life throws at us.

And that kicks into motion a nice little positive feedback cycle.

So, this week’s exercise is simple.

Grab a piece of paper, or use the comments section below to write down all the words that you can think of that describe the crazy, obnoxious things your children do that drive you crazy.

Next, pull from your memory your favorite image of your child. Hold on to that image as you look through the list of lousy labels and discover the hidden potential of your child masked by the negativity of the label. And start listing them next to (or below) your other list..

Here is my list –

Old Negative Labels             New Exciting Labels
Bossy Leader, takes initiative
Demanding Decisive, knows what she wants
Possessive Good stewardship
Argumentative Good negotiator, logical reasoner
Loud Bubbly, energetic, full of life
Nosy Curious, logical reasoner
Stubborn, whiny Persistent
Aloof, Self-centered Independent
Aggressive Stands up for her beliefs
Nit-picky Meticulous, knows what she wants

As you can see (and as I felt when I had made the list the first time), everything that annoys us in the kids is an amazing positive characteristic that we would love to see in them as adults.

And trust me, this makes a huge difference. My daughter is just 5 and boy, can she boss around. I used to be annoyed/irritated when she would insist on me doing something in a particular way that seemed totally ridiculous to me. And when I watched her bossing over her softer-mannered friends, I used to worry that she will have no friends if she keeps bossing them so much. And a part of me felt guilty because, well, she gets it from me (multiplied by what she inherited from my husband).

When I started seeing her through the new lens that she is capable of good leadership skills, that she is decisive and knows what she wants, it really changed my perspective. I feel proud of her now instead of being embarrassed or worried. I have a much clearer view of my role as a parent as I think of how to hone these positive skills, than when I fretted about how to break the negative traits. My job now is to groom her to be a leader that she naturally is, to show her how to channel this trait to get the best results, how to communicate so she can inspire instead of intimidate and generally, show her how amazing she really is!

I am now sailing with the winds, instead of against them.

Parenting seems a lot more like fun than a chore.

The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents

Take the next 2-minutes (or maybe a little more this week) to put together your list. Seriously, even if you are skeptical, try it. When you list out the negative labels, you’ll be amazed at how many negative feelings you harbor against your kids (don’t worry, you are not alone — most of us do, and it’s often unintentional). And as you work through the positive labels, you’ll be even more amazed at the great potential your kids have!

As always, I urge you to actually put it down in writing because it helps your brain be a lot more effective than if you were to just hold the thoughts in your head as you work through them (a proven fact – check out the book Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long). So, grab a sheet of paper to do it the old fashioned way, or post it in the comments section below (if you are worried about privacy, just use a “pen” name). If you are stuck trying to come up with a good positive label, let us know and we will all work together to come up with some positive twists and you can choose the ones that work the best for you.

The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents

Over the next week, let’s focus on two simple things –

  1. Pay attention to the labels we unintentionally use when we talk/think about our kids, and
  2. Make a conscious attempt to start thinking of our kids with the positive labels

And special brownie points to anyone who finds ways to use those positive labels not just in conversations about their kids, but even in conversations with their kids!

Automate Fine Parenting

Great Parents are Made, Not Born. Join 18,000+ parents who receive articles like this for free, every Monday, directly in their mailbox. Simply enter your email below to get started -


  1. says

    Great post with great advice. I’ve often been amazed at how much kids (even really young kids) overhear. They understand a lot more than we give them credit for, and I love putting it all in perspective the way you did. This is excellent advice even for the way you treat your significant other. It’s so easy to focus on the negative and not find the positive.
    “You forgot the dishes in the other room when you did the dishes!”
    instead of
    “Thanks for taking the initiative to do the dishes, I noticed a few in the other room and I set them by the sink.”
    Seeing other through a positive lens helps your own outlook for yourself, too. It’s all around a win-win situation, and I’m happy for the reminder. Thanks!

    • Sumitha says

      Miss Growing Green, your’e so right! While I’ve been focusing my attention on how this pertains to the way we raise our kids, it’s not just about that… By extending this idea to the way we look at all the people in our lives – our spouse, our boss, our colleagues – we can significantly change the way our day (not to mention theirs!), and the way our life in general turns out!!!

      Thanks for the wonderful insight, Miss Growing Green!

  2. Julie says

    Negative labels. Positive reframe

    Argumentative. Good negotiator
    Unfocused. Creative
    Messy. Easy going
    All over the place. Taking it all in
    Disorganized. Low key
    Loud. Lively and joyful
    Show offy. Confident

    • Sumitha says

      Gosh, I love those — particularly the “show offy —> confident” and “all over the place —> taking it all in”. I need to add those to my list as well :) Thanks for sharing, Julie!

  3. hurry-up T says

    Chatterbox – Great vocabulary
    Noisy – Happy
    Manipulative – Leadership qualities
    Determined – Staying Power
    Distracted – Plentiful Idea’s
    Hard Work – Life of the Party!

    Thank you for this exercise, It does help.
    I love your posts they provide alot of comfort and reassurance :)

    As a child I fell victim to alot of labels. They are imbedded in my psyche, reinforced over the years as other family members bandy them about. It does damage the soul and I hope to never do that to the other people in my world. It is really hard to not make judgements and to remove labels from ordinary conversation, but these days I just try to listen more and talk less.

    • Sumitha says

      Thanks for your kind words, Hurry-up T! It’s amazing how much this exercise helps, right?

      I am sorry to hear about the labels you got as a child, but so happy to see that you have chosen to move past them and be a more positive influence in the life of the people around you. I love the tip about talking less and listening more — I need to try that. Like your child, I have a “great vocabulary” that I exercise all the time 😉

  4. Nigel Corbett says

    Hi Sumitha,

    I have a question that is not closely related to this post, but I’d like some advice please.
    My brother has two daughters, one 8mths and one 3 years old.
    I think that both he and his wife would benefit from the advice your blog offers (I think your blog is great).
    However, I want to be sensitive to their situation and not suggest they are doing a bad job raising their kids.
    Do you have any advice as to how I could point them to your site without stepping on their parenting toes?

    Any advice would be much appreciated.



    • Sumitha says

      Thanks for your kind words, Nigel! It is so touching that you want to pass this site to your brother and sister-in-law while remaining sensitive to their situation!

      What I’ve realized is that most parents are good parents. Even though sometimes it may look like we don’t have our acts together, deep down we all want the best for our kids. This site is about taking that goodness in parents, and helping them get past the inevitable hurdles of everyday child rearing, and take things to the next level… to parent at their full potential and become really great parents. Perhaps you can point to your brother and sister-in-law that the reason you are suggesting this site is that you inherently believe that they are good parents, and would like to share with them something that can help them kick it up a notch and become great?

  5. Janelle says

    This is an awesome article, and very fitting for us right now. Thank you for this helpful exercise. It’s important that we, as parents, see the best in our kids! Even though our two children are still quite young, they both have acquired some negative labels from frustrated parents and family. And even though these descriptive terms aren’t meant to tear down or hurt, they do have a negative connotation and should be switched with positive words. Thank you!!

    3 year old
    Wild – vivacious, spirited, fun-loving, exuberant
    Bossy – takes initiative, leader
    Shy – demure, modest, reserved, thoughtful observer
    Sl-o-o-o-w – mindful, lives in the moment, stops to smell the roses (seriously, on every bush. True story!)

    1 year old
    Stubborn – determined, persistent, knows what she wants
    Aggressive – spunky, feisty

    • Sumitha says

      Thanks for the kind words Janelle! You made me laugh out loud with the “smell the roses” comment… I bet it happened when you were really late to get somewhere too…. ahhh, kids :)

      But you raise a good point there by replacing “sl-o-o-o-w” with “lives in the present”… I never quite thought of it that way! Reading your comment made me realize that while I am currently trying to be more mindful and present in my own life, unwittingly I’m pulling my daughter our of hers! Thanks for the wonderful reminder to stop to smell the roses (in our case “pick some wild flowers” while out on a walk meant to get some exercise :)).

  6. says

    Thanks for the advice, I will try using positive labels from now on. It’s very frustrating when kids are not putting in the required effort and lagging behind. I find this blog very useful.

    • Sumitha says

      @Eqbosimba, you are welcome! Yeah, when kids don’t put in the required effort, it can be quite frustrating. The trick is to try and motivate them the right way, and when you achieve that, they will stop lagging behind of their own accord. Like all things parenting, it is wonderfully challenging to figure out how to nudge while remaining gentle and understanding…. Take it head on and watch your kids (and yourself) blossom! Good luck.

  7. Tara says

    I agree that this is also great advice for relating to my husband.

    My son is 7 months old. I think I will save this exercise for when he’s a bit older.

    • Sumitha says

      @Tara, I’ve found that a LOT of things that I am trying out to become a better parent has helped me become a better spouse as well 😉

      About saving the exercise for later until your son is a little older: I remember that a lot of the “negative labels” that I associated with my daughter at a later stage got their roots (rather innocently) at a much younger age. For instance, when she was a baby, she would coo and caa until we gave her attention and I remember talking to my mom about “how she knows to get the attention when she wants, and will surely be a handful when she grows up” and that turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophesy! Just being aware of your thoughts right now may help you have very little to work through when you do try this exercise at a later date when you son is older!

      Good luck — enjoy your baby… that’s such a fun age!

  8. Debra says

    stubborn – sticks to her guns, knows what she wants
    intolerant of others – doesn’t put up with what she doesn’t like
    unconventional – interesting, not constrained by conventions
    sloppy – errr?
    sickly – courageous
    I could do with some help on sloppy – belongings fall off her and get lost (eg wallet down the sofa cushions) she is great at cleaning up but not so good at tidying up as she goes or making less mess in the first place (I can hear my judgement and rules but it’s how I’m built!)
    obsessive reader – loves books
    doesn’t listen – concentrates hard, is very focused
    hard to get his attention – not easily distracted
    is easily distracted (eg can’t get dressed without being distracted by a book) – knows what he loves (any other ideas for this one?)
    goes on and on about things – persistent, strong-minded
    won’t get his hair cut – unconventional, creative
    taunts his sister – he’s a child, these are teachable moments for both of them
    is a know-it-all – has acquired a lot of information
    is full of his own superiority – is successful, confident and proud of himself
    whiny – frustrated, angry, trying to be powerful and get what she wants
    bossy – knows what she wants and says so
    stubborn – persistent, focused
    cute – funny, creative, loving, artistic

      • Sumitha says

        Debra, Thanks so much for sharing! FWIW, I think you’ve come up with some really neat alternatives!

        About “sloppy” — how about “happy-go-lucky” (i.e., not fussy about her surroundings or belongings) or “being a teenager” (I’m a control freak now, but I was not very careful about my stuff when I was your daughter’s age)?

        About “is easily distracted (eg can’t get dressed without being distracted by a book)” — I love what you have. Not sure if anything can be better than “knows what he loves”, but just to put some more ideas in the hat how about “laser focused”, “passionate about knowledge”, “budding genius” (it’s probably not a good idea to saddle him with such a heavy label even though it is positive, but a good one for you to think of him as such), “knows his priorities”.

        My daughter is 5, so I can totally relate to your youngest ones labels :)

        • Debra says

          Thanks for “being a teenager”. It suggests for me that it’s something she can grow out of.
          I thought “cute” was interesting and I had to think about whether to put it down or not, but for a little girl “cuteness” is an easy default and not empowering for her in the long run.

    • Sumitha says

      Not a problem. Glad to hear your library has it. I am switching over more and more to listening to books (through the audible app on phone) since I can do it while driving, doing chores, or while waiting anytime, anywhere…

  9. Kristin Clay says

    My son has always been very curious – even as an infant. He likes watching the world around him and always has. When he’d hear something interesting, he would whip his little around to get a good look. My mother in law would call him ‘nosy.’ I didn’t like it because of the negative connotations. I would say, He’s not nosy, he’s inquisitive. She laughed but understood. And still to this day will describe him as inquisitive. I really like this article because I’ve always believed our words have lasting effects on our children. I felt a little crazy asking my MIL not to tell my 2 month old he is nosy but something in my gut told me it wasn’t good and I knew we could find a better word to describe his curiosity. I always try to be mindful of my phrasing when I am talking to my son and my husband is working on it as well. The issues I come across now are dealing with family members that don’t understand or care to understand. Maybe I can email this article to them!

    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      Awww…. Kristin, I think you did good by your son! I can imagine how awkward the situation might have been telling your MIL that your son is not nosy, but inquisitive!

      My in-laws will be staying with us for a couple of months during summer…. while they are really nice, I’m sure I’ll have a few of these moments. I’ll use your story as an inspiring example when stuck in a situation trying to decide if I should say something, or let things slide :) Thank you so much for sharing!

  10. Fauzia Anjum says

    Thanks Sumitha,

    I am very glad going through your blog. In fact, i was searching for such posts since long but could not find one that suits my requirements. I am sure it will help me and my kids in terms of grooming their positive labels. Thanks
    Would be looking forward for such blogs in future as well.

    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      So glad you’ve found us Fauzia. It’s a wonderful community and I think you might like it here. Welcome on board :)

  11. Lori says

    This is great and I already have a few positive to match the negative. The only one I’m struggling with -his negative is he fights with other kids when he doesnt get his way. How do i turn that into positive?

    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      “He can stand up for himself” and eventually “for others, what he believes in […]”. When you think of it, that is a great trait to have as a grow up and a defining characteristic of leaders. The only thing is to channel how he expresses it.

      My daughter is the same way. It’s a continuous, ongoing effort to teach her to “use words instead of hands” and to “use kind and gentle words instead of ordering/bossing around”, but I can see a marked difference in her from the time I started on this journey and now. It’s liberating when you have a clear role (in my case, guide my daughter to find the right way to express herself) than when you resist or feel agitated/embarrassed about what comes naturally to them!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>