I have to admit. Of all the challenges that I am facing as a parent – as an aspiring positive parent – communication is by far the most difficult for me.
For some, positive parenting comes easy and naturally. For others, (like myself) it is a constant struggle and a huge shift in mindset.
Wouldn’t life be easier if there were a positive parenting guide that tells us exactly what to say in any given situation?
I have come to realize that children are a beautiful blend of intelligence, honesty, curiosity, bluntness, sensitivity, empathy and so much more. They understand things and pick up on cues more than we adults realize. One lesson that I have learned is to never underestimate your child.
One of the greatest tools at our disposal as a parent is the ‘power of words.’ Words – how they are used and the way we communicate with our children – can have a ‘make it or break it’ effect. They can either uplift a child who is feeling down and give them that boost of self-confidence or they can crush a child’s self-confidence and self-esteem massively.
Following is a list of phrases that we usually say which are better avoided, and what to say instead. I have also delved a bit into the ‘why’ aspect of these phrases so you can have a better understanding of just how these words impact our children. I hope you will find this as informative and useful as I have and that it will lead you to nurture your child in a better and more positive manner.
Here we go –
1. Instead of: “Well done!”,“Good job!” or “Good boy/girl!”
Say: “I like/ love how you…” (say something specific to the activity, or what they have done).
“I love how you blended the pink, purple and orange colors of the sky to make it look like a sunset!”
“I love how you helped your little brother with his helmet. That was so responsible and caring.”
Say: “Thank you!”
Example: “Thank you for holding the door open for me! You have such good manners!”
The Why: Generic praise such as “well done”, “good job” or “good boy/girl” is not specific and tends to take away the underlying motivation and creates praise junkies. Instead, when you are specific with your praise, the child receives clarity and positive reinforcement for what action is appreciated, so they can be intrinsically motivated to do more of it.
Extra helper hint: try to state exactly what qualities you like in your child. For example, ‘good manners,’ ‘being responsible and caring’ are qualities that we want to instill in our kids. It’s a good thing to tell them from time to time. Kids are very perceptive, and when it comes to praise, they hang on our every word. So choose your words wisely. With time, the child will know and understand which behavior is correct and what is expected of them.
2. Instead of: “Get up for school or you’ll be late!”
Say: “Good morning! It’s time to wake up…!” (Immediately remind them about something to look forward to)
Examples: “Good morning! It’s time to wake up. Didn’t you mention that you get extra recess at school today?”
“Today is Monday! You’re getting ice-cream for lunch at school! How cool is that?”
(If your child is just not getting out of bed that morning):
Say: “Okay, I’ll give you 10 extra minutes! But after that, I expect to see you up and in the bathroom. Deal?”
The Why: Getting up in the morning for school is a power struggle in almost every household. What I have learned is that if I give my kids something to look forward to, they are generally not that grumpy in rolling out of bed.
Extra helper hint: Try to start off the morning on a positive note. A positive statement, something that you know gets your child excited and bounding out the door (hopefully). Also, telling them that you’ll give them 5 to 10 extra minutes in bed really helps them! And asking “deal?” means (a) they are agreeing and (b) they are waking up enough to respond. I’ve found that when I come back, my sons are already out of bed!
3. Instead of, “Go, brush your teeth!”
Say: “It’s time to clean our teeth and mouth…” (and add the reason why they need to)
Examples: “It’s time to brush our teeth because we don’t want cavities and holes in our teeth, do we?”
“Let’s go brush our teeth so we can have fresh, clean breath.”
The why: The power of the word ‘because’ can be used as a strong persuasive tool. When the logic is explained to a child (or an adult) – it makes sense in their mind, and they are more likely to listen to you and comply.
Extra helper hint: Make a boring activity (like brushing your teeth), positive. Let them know the consequences of not brushing their teeth; i.e. cavities and bad breath. Then let them understand why it’s important to keep healthy oral hygiene. This is far more effective than issuing an order.
4. Instead of: “You still haven’t tied your shoe-laces!? Are you daydreaming?
Say: “Henry, please tie your shoe-laces.” (Remain calm, even though you feel like rushing, and add a time limit).
Example: “Henry, please tie your shoe-laces, we need to leave home in 5 minutes.”
The why: It’s very easy for frustrated parents to slip into a sarcastic mode, especially when you’re on a tight schedule. By giving your child a time frame, they have a specific idea of what’s expected, and what they need to get done in those 5 minutes.
Extra helper hint: Always work in extra 10 minutes into your routine.
5. Instead of: “Mommy cannot eat that (pizza or french fries, etc) because I’m on a diet.”
Say: “I like to make healthy food choices.” (and then explain a bit)
Examples: “I like to make healthy food choices so my body stays strong.”
“Junk food is not really good for you. That’s why it’s called ‘junk.’”
Instead of: “I have to exercise” (in an annoyed tone in front of the kids)
Say: “It’s such a beautiful day today – perfect for a walk.”
The Why: Diet, exercise and body image are topics that need to be dealt with very carefully – especially in today’s age of social media. As parents, we should foster healthy eating habits in our kids, and be careful what we say in front of them about our view of body image and diet. According to Dr. Marc S. Jacobson (who specializes in the treatment of children and young adults for obesity, high cholesterol, and other metabolic issues), parents should keep their weight loss to themselves. If your daughter sees you stepping on the scale every few days, she may develop an unhealthy body image of herself that may (or may not) lead to eating disorders and insecurities later on in her life.
6. Instead of “Don’t you dare talk to me that way!” or “Don’t you walk away from me young man/ woman! Come back here!”
Say: “I do not like the way you just…” ( and state how it makes you feel in a calm manner)
Examples: “I do not like the way you just talked to me. It makes me feel disrespected.”
“I do not like the way your voice is rising. Yelling solves nothing. We need to calm down.”
Say: “I understand that you’re upset, so am I…”
Example: “I understand that you’re upset and very angry. So am I. Let’s both calm down and talk about this later. I love you.”
The why: It’s important to take a breath and a step back in a heated argument. Kids are usually in lockdown defiant mode, and nothing we as parents say to them will work in those times. It’s best to emphasize and remind them that we have feelings as well, and don’t appreciate them talking to us in that manner. It’s best to calm down, (either together- for small children, or in a separate room- for older teens) and revisit the issue at a later time when both parties have calmed down.
Extra helper hint: Simply stating, “I love you” also helps to remind our kids (and us!) that even in the worst of times, we still love them, no matter what; that our love is unconditional. Kids (especially older teens) need to be reminded about that.
7. Instead of: “Don’t talk to strangers.”
Say: “What would you do if an unknown person told you to take a walk with him/her?” (Give your child a scenario and ask them a question about what they would do in that situation).
Example: “What would you do if a stranger came up to you and said that mommy had sent him to get you?”
The Why: The best way to teach the concept of ‘stranger danger’ is to ask your child specific questions about a situation. Child development and behavior specialist, Betsy Brown Braun suggests in her book, Just Tell Me What To Say to go over specific situations with your child so they know what to do. That is the best way to teach this concept.
8. Instead of: “Behave yourself or go to your room!” or “Stop hitting right NOW!”
Say: “How can I make you feel better?” (Ask a question in those difficult moments instead of giving orders).
Example: “I realize you are very mad at your little brother for taking away your toy. What can I do to help you calm down? Would you like a hug?”
Say: “Please stop hitting each other with your hands.” (Use this as a teaching moment)
Example: “Please stop hitting each other with your hands! Hands are not for hurting each other. This is not how we use them.”
The Why: No one likes to be ordered or bossed around. Instead of ordering your child (and having them rebel, or defy you) it’s best to ask them a question (to disrupt their anger and make them think), or offer them a hug or consolation, or (as in option #2), teach them the right way to do something.
9. Instead of: “No, you cannot have cookies before dinner! Stop asking me again and again!”
Say: “If you fill your tummy with sugar before you eat…” (Tell your child a fact, something that they will understand as to why sweets are not allowed before a meal.)
Examples: “If you fill your tummy with sugar before you eat, you won’t have space for the healthy food. Don’t you want to grow up healthy and strong?”
“Too many sweets are bad for your health, you could get sick, and that’s no fun.”
“Oh, I want some cookies too, but the house rules are “No snacks before dinner”. Here, help me with fixing the dinner…”
The why: Parenting expert and psychologist Dr. David Walsh, suggests that kids need to hear the reason for the word “No.” In his award-winning, national bestseller book No, Why Kids – of All Ages – Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It, Walsh describes that the delayed gratification concept is one that kids of this generation are not very familiar with. It teaches them control, self-discipline, perseverance, and most of all – that not everything they want in life will be handed to them on a silver platter.
10. Instead of: “Wow, you’re so smart! You whizzed through that math worksheet so fast!”
Say: “That seemed a little too easy for you…” (immediately add a positive alternative for something else your child can do).
Example: “That seemed a little too easy for you. Let’s do some challenge problems so your brain can grow.”
The Why: Praising your child’s ability to complete a task without much effort gives them the impression that effort and hard work are negative, and everything should come naturally and easy for them so they can be “praise-worthy”. Instead, challenge them to more advanced problems so they can develop the “growth mindset” shared by Dr. Carol Dweck in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, and continue to work hard
11. Instead of: “You’re a natural at that!”
Say: “I love watching you do that.”
The Why: This statement conveys the message that you enjoy what your child is doing, regardless of the outcome. It is important to foster effort in kids and help develop a growth mindset (as mentioned in the previous example #10).
12. Instead of: “What would you like for your snack?
Say: “For your snack, do you want yogurt or bananas?
The Why: Give your child limited choices that you can follow through, instead of too many options with an open-ended question. Not only does this make it easier for the parent to give the choice depending on what’s available at home, but you can also subtly teach your child to make healthy choices
13. Instead of: “How was school?” or “How was your day?”
Say: “What was one thing you…” (ask specific questions instead of questions that beg the answer “Fine!”)
Examples: “What was the one thing you liked, and one thing you didn’t like about your day?”
“Tell me 3 things you did in school today.” (This can be turned into an every day “3 Things” game)
“So, what did all your friends do on the weekend?”
The Why: Make your child think and reflect on their day, the good parts and the negative parts. Sometimes, kids keep to themselves, especially the negative things. It’s always good to keep the conversation open so your child can unload and tell you if something negative happened at school, but you need to ask specific questions to get the conversation started.
14. Instead of: “Why aren’t you understanding this? Are you even paying attention in class?”
Say: “It’s okay if you’re not grasping this concept. Let’s look at this problem from another angle and see if we can solve it together.”
The Why: It’s important to let your kids accept that they will not always understand things the first time around. There is always room to improve and learn, but you need to put in the effort.
Extra helper hint: Math is usually the subject that gets to most kids, and yields to more frustrated parents. What helps (in my personal experience) is to take a short break – a walk, a snack, juice or even ice cream! Just something that distracts the mind for a moment and helps to regain balance and a positive outlook for learning.
15. Instead of: “You did it! You won! See, I told you practice makes perfect!”
Say: “Looks like your hard work and effort paid off!
The Why: Sports psychologist, Dr Joel Fish, PhD, explains in his book, 101 Ways to Be a Terrific Sports Parent that the term ‘practice makes perfect’ actually has a negative effect on kids and their performance. It is not guaranteed that after lots of practice, the child will win and be ‘perfect.’ It adds pressure on the child and some children who are perfectionists and competitive will be very hard on themselves because of it.
Extra helper hint: While it is true that repeated practice will yield mastery, this term should still be used with caution. Especially if you know that your child is an overachiever and highly competitive. It sometimes can cultivate feelings of ‘I’m just not good enough.’ Rather, try to motivate your child to do the hard work and put in the effort…regardless of the outcome.
16. When another kid hits your child at school…
Instead of: “Don’t hit back, tell the teacher.” or “I will email/ call your teacher immediately! That is so wrong!”
Say: “What happened before ____ hit you?” (Ask your child questions to better understand the situation).
Examples: “How did you feel when ____ hit you?”
“What were you doing when ___ hit you?”
“What can you do if this happens again?”
The Why: In her book, Raising A Thinking Child, Dr. Myrna B. Shure, a professor at the Department of Psychology at Drexel University, suggests that parents not think for their kids or immediately offer solutions. Rather, parents should ask questions that would lead to their kids to problem solve and come to the conclusion for themselves.
Phew, that’s a long list and I’m sure, I’ve only scratched the surface. If you have been using any of the “instead of” phrases, please don’t beat yourself up. As I mentioned at the beginning, positive communication has been a challenge, and it is a work in progress even on the best of days.
Just as everything in life, we will have ups and downs with our kids. I’m learning to not take it personally and to evolve into a better, more positive parent.
Rest assured there will be days when your child says or does something that will leave you stumped. Why, just today, my little 7-year old exclaimed to me, “I’m taking my sorry back!” This nice little announcement came after I reprimanded him when he got the kitchen counter and floor wet right after I cleaned it up and dried it. Apparently, he didn’t like my ‘tone of voice.’ There’s never a dull moment in my house with that child of mine.
Putting together this list has been helpful for me and I hope it helps you too.
The 2 Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Let’s try these for our quick action items today –
- Reflect on the usage of words with your child. Are you using positive words or do you slip into the demand and command voice?
- For example, “Hurry up Henry! We need to leave the house in 5 minutes!” Think about how you can word this differently to gain compliance from your child.
- If your child is stuck in a ‘fixed mindset’ how will you gently coax them out of it to promote a ‘growth mindset’?
- Do you slip into the default ‘Good job” praise? Or, are you deliberate about praise of specific actions?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
In the weeks ahead –
- Try to foster a ‘growth mindset’ in your child. If something comes easy to your child, try to take it one step further and make it a bit more challenging. For example, if your 3rd grader did well on single digit multiplication, try to up it a level and teach them double-digit multiplication, even if it is not part of the school curriculum yet.
- Encourage your child to do their best and to work hard…no matter the outcome.
- Always be supportive and not judgemental. For example: If your child doesn’t do well on a test, ask them how they can improve on the next one? Offer them your help, and encourage them to always come to you if they don’t understand something at school or on their homework.
- Try to foster a positive inner voice in your child. This is key to building a strong sense of self, and confidence in your child.
- This week, try to ask your child 3 good things that happened at school each day and to take this reflection a step further, ask them about the negative that they saw at school. Was it during lunchtime or recess? Talk to your child and hear them out.
List of books mentioned in this article:
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol S. Dweck
- No: Why Kids–of All Ages–Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It, by David Walch
- Why Do They Act That Way? – Revised and Updated: A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen, by David Walch
- Raising A Thinking Child, by Myrna B. Shure
- 101 Ways To Be A Terrific Sports Parent, by Joel Fish
- Just Tell Me What to Say, by Betsy Brown Braun