There’s an article by Parents Magazine that I often see shared on the internet. It’s titled “10 Things You Should Never Say to Your Kids.” When I see that headline, I think of things like “You’re worthless.” “I hate you.” “I wish you’d never been born.” Those probably should fall in the category of things never to say to your kids. Or to anyone else’s kids, for that matter.
But what are the horrible, soul-wounding phrases that Parents magazine cautions against? “Great job.” “Practice makes perfect.” “Let me help.” “Be careful.” “You’re OK.”
Now, when you read their article, it’s actually got lots of good content, with some helpful tips. It’s well worth a read. I agree with them all and I’m not concerned about the topic so much as the tone that is presented by the headline.
A better title would be “Translating Common Parenting Sayings into More Positive Statements Which Will Help Them Develop Into the Emotionally and Physically Healthy, Upstanding Citizens You Hope They Will Become.”
But, Parenting magazine knows the rules of modern media. When you want people to read a title on Facebook and click through to read the article, it helps to include a number in the title (“5 reasons chocolate is healthier than kale”) and it helps if they can convince readers that if they don’t read the article something terrible will happen to them or their children. (“Follow our screen time tips or your child will be brain damaged for life.”) Companies who advertise on a magazine’s website appreciate those “clickable” titles, because it means more people look at the article, and thus at their ads.
And it’s not just Parenting magazine – many other media outlets have used this same headline with success. Here’s just the first page of search results for “things never to say to your kids”
- CNN: 9 things you shouldn’t say to your child
- Empowering Parents: 6 things you should never say to your child
- Woman’s Day: 10 things you should never say to your kids
- Parent Society: 6 things you should never say to your kids
- Care.com: 19 Things you should never say to kids
- Buzzfeed: 16 things you should never say to your kids
- Parenting.com: Positive reinforcement – 9 things you shouldn’t say to your child
- PopSugar: 13 things you should stop saying to your kids now
But, when parents read these headlines, how does it make us feel? It raises anxiety. It creates stress around the sense of “I have to do everything right as a parent, or my child will end up screwed up.” It makes us feel guilty about all the times we’ve “done it wrong.”
For example, check out this anxiety and guilt inducing intro from Parent Society:
If you’re a halfway decent parent, you do your best to not swear at your children or call them names. But other phrases that roll off the tongue can be every bit as dangerous — especially since you might not even realize you’re saying them. Take a look at six phrases you need to cut out of your conversations…
Then to read through those six dangerous phrases, you have to click through seven pages that are so loaded with ads, it’s hard to actually find the content…
So, let’s first reality check these messages:
- It’s pretty guaranteed… At some point, all parents say mean things to their kids. We do. I do – just yesterday I said some things I’m sure are on lists of “things never to say to your kids.” We have bad days, and we get angry, because we’re human. (Check out my series on parental anger – how to manage it and how to heal from it.)
- Luckily, kids are remarkably resilient. (To learn more about resiliency and how to help your kids build it, read this article by Jan Faull on the PEPS website.) If you have a positive, loving relationship with your child overall, a few harmful words will not damage that permanently.
- Almost all the things on all these lists of “things never to say” aren’t really that dreadful. I promise you that if you say good job to your child, they won’t be permanently damaged!! However, there are many more things you might say instead, or in addition to, good job. Having an awareness of alternatives just helps broaden your list of options for how to connect with and guide your child.
So, I read through all those articles on things never to say. And I’ve gathered them all [well, almost all] into the left hand column of this table. But I am NOT saying “Never say these things.” Frankly, for most of these phrases, it would be totally fine if you say them from time to time. But, they don’t want to be the only message your child hears from you.
The middle column is just to help raise awareness of how these phrases could have a negative impact if over-used over time. The right hand column suggests other options you can try out, and gives resources for where you can learn more.
|Phrase that “parenting experts” caution parents against using||Negative / non-helpful ways the phrase could be heard by a child if this is all you ever said to them||Alternative things to say or do (on good days when you have the time and energy) that may be more helpful|
|Good Job / Great Job / Good girl
That’s a beautiful picture
You’re the best _____ in the whole wide world
|Empty praise – if it was something that was really easy for them to do, it’s weird to say good job.
Judgement – implies that there’s one right way to do things.
They’re reached their limit – you don’t think they can do any better.
They’ll someday realize you’re lying or exaggerating and lose faith in your judgment. Or they’ll feel pressure to really become the best.
|Only praise things that took effort.
Focus on the process and HOW they did it and what they learned rather than on the product.
Read more about effective praise.
|I’m proud of you
I love it when you….
It would make me happy / mad if you…
I’m ashamed when you….
I’ll never forgive you
|Conditional love. Also implies that your emotional well-being as an adult is dependent on your child’s behavior of the moment.||Let your children know that you will always love them, no matter what. (This doesn’t mean that their behavior is always OK – it’s not, and you do need to set limits. And it doesn’t mean you don’t have high expectations for them – you do want them to work hard and be good people. But your happiness is not dependent on that.)|
|Practice makes perfect||Well, practice makes much better. But, it doesn’t make perfect because nothing is perfect. And aiming for perfect implies that mistakes are evil.||“Practice and you will improve.”
“Making mistakes helps us get better.”
“If you aren’t making any mistakes, this is too easy for you and maybe you’re ready for more challenge.”
Read more about “Willingness to Fail is the Inventor’s Key to Success.”
|You’re so [shy, smart, clumsy, pretty]
You’re the [strong, fast, silly, wild] one
You’ll never… [lose, win, do anything wrong / right]
You’re worthless / a loser
Girls don’t do that / Boys don’t like..
|This is all labelling. Labelling your child limits them.
If you label them based on a problem behavior, It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and they continue to be that way.
If you label them by a “talent” they have, then that creates a lot of pressure on them to retain that talent. They worry about losing your love / their identity if they don’t succeed in that area.
|You do want to understand your child’s temperament, gender influences, and learning style and help support them in using their strengths to build confidence and work around the things that come harder to them. But don’t “label” kids or think they’ll never change.
Praise effort, not talent. Let them know that everyone can get better at anything if they work at it. Learn more about the growth-based mindset.
|You’re just like [someone I don’t like]
Why can’t you be more like….Stop acting like a baby.
You’re so [bad adjective]
Big boys don’t…
Good girls don’t….
|The first labels them (see above). The second means they’re always being held to someone else’s standard.
These statements are intended to shame a child. “A child’s self-identity is shaped around the things they hear about themselves.”
|Let your child become the very best them they can become without worrying whether they are just like someone else.
If you disapprove of a child’s behavior, tell them how to change the behavior. Try not to attack their identity or their sense of being worthy of your love.
|What’s wrong with you?||Implies that the problem is with them, instead of with the situation.||“What’s wrong?”
“What happened that upset you?”
|Let me help you
Just let me do it for you
You’re doing it wrong, let me do it
You’re too slow, I’ll do it
|Implies that they’re not competent.
If you rescue your child from every challenge, how will they ever learn to do anything on their own?
|Allow them to be frustrated. When we’re struggling with something, we’re on the verge of learning something new. (If they’re miserable, that’s a different story….)
Ask guiding questions – “what happens if…”
Make gentle suggestions “Try…”
If you’re really in a hurry say “I need to help you so we can get to preschool on time. Tomorrow you can try again when we have more time.”
|You’re OK (after child is hurt and is crying)
What a dumb thing to get upset about
Don’t worry, it will be fine
There’s no reason to be scared, just do it
|Dismisses their feelings as unimportant.
Tells them not to trust their intuition and just do things even if they seem risky. (This could get them into all sorts of trouble as teenagers.)
|Validate emotions and pain first, then reassure. Once you’ve said “I hear that you’re scared / hurt / worried” then you can address logical reasons why you believe that it will be OK in the end. More on emotion coaching.|
|Don’t talk to strangers.||This blanket message can make your child fearful of everyone and also limit their ability to learn the social skills they’ll need as adults who very frequently have to talk to strangers!||Model appropriate ways to interact with appropriate strangers.
Talk to them about how to tell the difference.
Read more about how to help your kid judge whether to talk to strangers.
|Be careful.||If over-used, can create a fearful child who thinks the world is a dangerous place. Also: Teacher Tom says: “An adult who commands, “Don’t slide down that banister!” might be keeping a child safe in that moment, but is… robbing him of a chance to think for himself, which makes him that much less safe in the future when no one is there to tell him what to do.”||Demonstrate / model how to be safe.
Encourage them to look before leaping.
Encourage them to tune into how they feel about something – if they’re nervous, there may be a good reason.
When the risk is just a mild bump or bruise, let them test things. Someday they’ll get that bruise, and they’ll learn something important.
Read more about teaching safety skills.
|I’ll never let anything bad happen to you
Don’t worry – you’ll always be safe
I promise – I’ll never die. I’ll always be here
|Don’t make promises that you can’t keep. You can tell that you’ll try to do all these things.||“I’ll do my best to keep you safe. I’ll try to always be there for you, for as long as I live. Sometimes bad things will happen and I’ll try to help give you tools for coping with that.”|
|You’re in the way.
I can’t get anything done with you around.
Hurry up. You’re making us late.
I have better things to do than…
Would you just leave me alone for 5 minutes?
|We all know that children are terribly inconvenient room-mates who just make everything harder. But, we don’t need to tell them that every day!
These sorts of statements create stress and anxiety and make the child wonder if he is loved.
|Give positive, concrete suggestions for other positive, concrete things they could be doing in the moment.
When you really need a break or need help, admit it and ask for it. That’s part of modelling self care. “Mama is really sick today. I need your help. Can you sit and play quietly for just a few minutes?”
|If …. then….. If you don’t do [this bad thing], then you’ll get [this punishment].||“I’m expecting bad behavior and am looking forward to punishing you.”||When … then…. “When you do [good thing that I’m expecting you to do], then we’ll get to do [this fun thing] together.” Learn more about punishment and reward.|
|Wait till your father gets home…||Makes someone else into a bad guy.
Implies that you don’t have enough power to enforce consequences.
|Consequences should be immediate, logical, and enforced by the parent who encountered the misbehavior.|
|I told you so
That’s what you get for not listening
|Yes, you probably told them not to do something, and yes, it’s frustrating when they do it anyway. But rubbing it in serves no purpose.||“Well, that’s not what you were hoping would happen is it? What could you do differently in the future so you don’t have this problem again?”|
|Because I said so||Implies that you make arbitrary judgments on a whim and they have no control over that.||“I’m your parent, and it’s my job to keep you safe and help you grow up to be a good person and keep things running well around the house. Sometimes I have to enforce rules you don’t like. It feels unfair to you, but I will continue to do what I think is best.”|
Here is a PDF of this table on Words Matter.