47 Things You Should Never Say to Your Kids (or Their Heads Will Explode)


explode

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.” But the article is not about obviously harmful phrases like “You’re worthless.” “I hate you.” “I wish you’d never been born.” Instead, they’re cautioning about saying “Great job.” “Practice makes perfect.” “Let me help.” “Be careful.” “You’re OK.”

Huh?? You may wonder what is so awful about these words.

When you read their article, it’s got lots of really good content, and is well worth a read. But a better title would be “Translating Common Parenting Sayings into More Positive Statements Which Will Help Your Kids 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.”) And it’s not just Parenting magazine – many other media outlets have used this same headline with success. At the bottom of this post, I list just the first page of search results for “things never to say to your kids.”

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.”

So, let’s first reality check these articles:

  1. At some point, all parents say mean things to their kids. It’s not just you! Just yesterday I said some things I’m sure are on lists of “things never to say to your kids.” We all 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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 all those phrases below. 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. For each one, I’ll then share some of the negative or non-helpful ways the phrase could be heard by a child. Then I’ll offer other options for alternatives you can try out, and gives resources for where you can learn more.

Unadulterated praiseGood Job / Great Job / Good girlThat’s a beautiful picture. You did that just right. What a perfect building you built! You’re the best _____ in the whole wide world!

  • How your child might hear this: Could hear judgment – there’s only one right way to do things. Could feel like empty praise if you say it no matter what they do, even it it’s easy. Could imply they’ve reached their limit and you don’t think they can do any better. They may not trust you after they discover they’re not the best ____ in the whole world.
  • Alternatives:  Only praise things that took effort. Focus on the process and HOW they did it and what they learned rather than on the product. Give specific detailed feedback about what’s good, and what could be even better. Read about questions to ask to extend their learning. Read more about effective praise.

You make me feels…. 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

  • How your child might hear this: Your love is conditional on their accomplishments. Also implies that your emotional well-being as an adult is dependent on your child’s behavior.
  • Alternatives: 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. 

  • How your child might hear this: Anything less than perfect isn’t good enough.
  • Alternatives: “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.”

Labeling:  You’re so [shy, smart, clumsy, pretty]. You’re the [strong, fast, silly, wild] one. You always… You’ll never… [lose, win, do anything wrong / right]. You’re worthless / a loser. Girls don’t do that / Boys don’t like..

  • Labeling 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.
  • Alternatives: 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.

ShamingYou’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….

  • What they might hear: These statements are intended to shame a child. “A child’s self-identity is shaped around the things they hear about themselves.”
  • Alternatives: 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.
  • Alternatives:  “What’s wrong?” “What happened that upset you?”

Let me do it:  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.

  • What they might hear: 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?
  • Alternatives: 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.”

Don’t cry. You’re OK. 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.

  • What they might hear: Their feelings are not important to you. They shouldn’t trust their own feelings, they should let other people tell them how to feel. Tells them not to trust their intuition and do things even if they seem risky. (This could get them into all sorts of trouble as teens.)
  • Alternatives: 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

  • What they might hear: 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!
  • Alternatives: 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  and talk about tricky people.”

Be careful. Watch out!

  • What they could hear: Of course we use it when needed! But 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.”
  • Alternatives:  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. If they get that bruise, they’ll learn something important. Read more about teaching safety skills.

Promises you can’t keep: 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

  • What they might hear: Lies. And no tools for how to survive hardship.
  • Alternatives. “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.”

Please Go Aways: You’re in the way. I can’t get anything done with you around. Hurry up. You’re making us late. Shut up. I have better things to do than… Would you just leave me alone for 5 minutes?

  • What they might hear: So, I totally get that children are terribly inconvenient at times, and that they make everything harder, and that we all need breaks sometimes!! However, these sorts of statements create stress and anxiety and make the child wonder if he is loved.
  • Alternatives: 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/ThenIf …. then…..  If you do [this bad thing], then you’ll get [this punishment].

  • What they might hear:  ““I’m expecting bad behavior and am looking forward to punishing you.”
  • Alternative: 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.

  • What they might hear: you don’t have enough power to enforce consequences.
  • Alternatives: 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

  • What they might hear: Feels a little vindictive, like you were hoping something bad would happen to them.
  • Alternative: “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

    • What they might hear: It’s authoritarian. Implies that whoever makes the rules can make arbitrary judgments on a whim, and they have no control over that. 
    • Alternative: “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.”

Telling them how to do things they know how to do: Hang your coat up. Wash your hands.

  • What they could hear: You think they’re now smart or competent. Also implies they only need to do those things when you tell them to.
  • Alternatives: Ask them that to do: “Where does your coat go? What do you do before we eat? I bet you know what you need to do next.”

Don’t ______. Don’t throw that / spill that / hit the dog / slam the door.

  • What they might hear: If you just tell them  NOT to do, they first have to stop their impulse to do it (which is hard for a young child) and then figure out something to do instead (which is even harder.) Also, if they already know not to do that thing, you don’t want to pay too much attention to it, as attention reinforces behavior.
  • Alternative: Tell them what TO DO. “Carefully set that down. Move your milk so it doesn’t spill. Pet the dog softly. Close the door gently.”

You did that wrong. Why do you mess things up?

  • What they could hear: Mistakes are bad. Don’t try anything you’re not sure you can do well.
  • Alternative: “Oops, that didn’t work. What could you do differently?” “Making mistakes helps us get better.”

Learn more:

Here are lots more articles on these ideas.

Printable handout:

Would you like to print out a handout of this info for yourself or to share with friends or students or clients? Click here for: Words Matter 2. Includes a worksheet where you can practice re-writing sentences to be more effective.

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Talking with Children about Death

cemetery

Parents in my classes ask: “when should I talk to my child about death?” I say: whenever the opportunity presents itself. Because death is a part of life. There will be plenty of chances to talk about it. Here are just some of the opportunities I’ve encountered with my youngest child in the past year or so.

On the walk to my son’s kindergarten, once we saw a dead squirrel, another time, we found the leg of a bird, and there was a lost cat sign up for months, which led to lots of discussions of what might have happened to the cat. On the way to first grade, we drive past a cemetery. On Memorial Day, he asked whether we would have a party for this holiday, and I explained why we don’t “celebrate” Memorial Day, which led to a whole discussion of death, war, what is a generation, and so on. A member of our church, a teacher at school, and a student at school have died, and he heard people speaking about these deaths and being sad about them. His older sister’s pet gecko died and we buried it together. We heard on the news about many people being killed in a shooting. (I try not to listen to the news much around him… but this was a TV that was on in a public place.) His pea plant died. We see flowers on a sign post on the side of a highway where a fatal car accident occurred. Somehow at school, a discussion came up of the danger of thunderstorms, and he worried for a few days about whether his dad would be struck by lightning and killed. He was wondering about heaven. He’s seen death occur in many books, movies, and TV shows. Each time one of these ‘teachable moments’ came up, we talked openly about death, the dying process, and grief. None of these were long drawn-out, or stressful conversations. Most were brief (one minute?) discussions, where I try to be as matter-of-fact about things like decomposition as I am about things like new buds coming out on a tree. I try to talk about grief as a natural emotion similarly to how I talk about other emotions.

And… then his grandmother died. My mom had Alzheimer’s and had been fading for a few years. We had been open with my son about this and the fact that she was no longer able to do the things she had done before. This April, I had to travel to be with her for a few days as we moved her into hospice care, and then my husband and I traveled for her funeral. Around this time, we have lots of long conversations with my son about death.

I was so glad that we had a long history of open and honest conversations about this part of life. I can only imagine how hard it would be for a parent who had tried to avoid this subject for years to suddenly have to explain it for the first time when she is managing her own grief over the loss of a parent and the child’s loss of a grandparent.

When talking with a child about anything, it always helps to have some knowledge of their developmental stage, and what they’re likely to be able to understand, versus what might simply be over their head at this age. Here is how children’s understanding of death evolves:

  • Preschool age (3 – 5). Even if you explain what death is (when something living stops functioning – stops breathing, growing, etc.), they may not be able to grasp what you mean. They may believe death is temporary and reversible. Although children see many deaths in movies and stories, they don’t really see a lot of what happens afterward when that character never returns.
  • Early elementary age (5 – 9): Children come to understand that death is final. They aren’t clear on what causes death. They also learn that all living things will someday die, but tend not to yet grasp that they themselves will someday die.
  • Tweens (age 9 – 12): They understand what death is – that organisms no longer function in the way they did when they were alive. They understand that death is final, and that they will die someday.
  • Teenagers: Begin to wonder about the meaning of life and form beliefs about what happens after death. Some begin taking risks, as if to test their own immortality.

When and How to Talk

Be thoughtful about whether you bring it up.

There’s typically no reason for you to push the topic or start the conversation, unless you believe a death will come soon to someone they care about. (Just as we’d talked to my son about his grandmother as she declined, we also have a 16 year old dog who is ailing, so when he has bad days, we let my son know that Rufty may not be with us much longer.) This allows them to build special memories, and say some goodbyes so there are fewer regrets later on about what was not done or said.

If they bring it up, don’t change the subject.

Let them know it’s OK to talk about it, and you’re glad they feel comfortable asking you.

If they’ve asked a question, clarify exactly what they’re asking. Sometimes they want just a simple basic answer and we go into the Big Talk about everything they’ll ever need to know about death and totally overwhelm them.

Turn the question around, and ask them what they already know. This lets you set a baseline for what you need to talk about versus what they already understand. It also allows you to correct misconceptions. For example, if they ask when someone will come back to life, we may need to explain the permanency of death, and how it’s different than when kids just “pretend to be dead” while playing.

Reassure.

Often when someone asks a question, there is an underlying concern behind the question. If your child seems worried when they ask you about something, think what fear might be behind the question. If a child asks you “can parents die?”, they’re really asking “will you die? Who will take care of me?” If you suspect this is the case, you can put it into words for them: “are you worried I won’t be here to take care of you?”

First, unless you have reason to suspect otherwise, say “I don’t expect to die any time soon. I know that idea feels scary to you, but I expect I will live for a long time yet.” (Note, you didn’t promise anything, because we can’t ever really promise that.) Then reassure that even if that were to happen, they would be OK: “But if I did die, here’s who would take care of you.”

Think about key points to make about what death is.

There are a few key ideas to convey at some point – not all at once, but in multiple minute-long conversations through their childhood:

  • Death is the cessation of life functions. Use simple terms and concrete examples from their life experience. “When an animal dies, it no longer breathes, or eats, or moves or feels hungry.” “Do you remember when your pea plant died, and it stopped growing?”
  • Death is caused by physical reasons. Describe in a simple, non-graphic way what caused a death. Explain enough that they understand… for example, don’t just say “she died because she was sick”, because then the next time your child is sick with a cold, they might think they might die. Explaining something like “she’s really sick, with a disease called _____. It’s not something I would expect you or me to get…”
    • Note: Children are inherently self-centered – their world view rotates around themselves. This can often mean that if someone dies, they wonder if it was their fault. “I said ‘I hope you die’ and then they did!!!” This can lead to a lot of guilt and shame. Reassure them that the death is not their fault.
  • Death is permanent.
    • Don’t confuse them by saying the person “went to sleep” because then it can be scary to go to sleep, or saying the person “went away” because then they will worry when you “go away” to the grocery store that you may never come back. Using the word death is actually helpful to reduce these anxieties.
    • Saying that the person who passed away is “watching over you”, or asking your child to “draw a picture for grandma to tell her how much you miss her” may confuse children about the permanency of death. If the idea that someone is watching over you from heaven fits into your belief structure, it’s fine to say this, but just be aware of this possible confusion effect.
  • Everything that is alive will someday die. You may also address that different things have different expected life spans. We might expect some pets to only live for a few years. We expect people to live for many decades. (Again, you may need to reassure them that you or other important adults expect to be around for a long while still.)
    • At some point, we’ll need to acknowledge that not only old people / animals die. It can happen to someone very young, it’s just less likely.

You may worry that you don’t know what to say about things like what death feels like, or what happens after you die. It’s OK if you don’t have all the answers. You can say to your child “No one knows for sure. I believe ________.”

Share your own beliefs.

One of the reasons it’s important to talk to your children about hard things (read “Better You than YouTube”) is so  you can share your own values with them and talk about the beliefs that are important to your family.

Note: one thing that can confuse children is when parents say things like “he’s happy up in heaven now” but the parent is clearly grieving and sad. They may not understand why you’re sad about something that makes the departed one happy. You can explain that you are sad the person is no longer with you, and you can’t spend time with them any more.

Talk about how we might feel about death.

Don’t be shy about talking about grief. It is one of many emotions that we humans experience. (Emotional literacy is a key life skill we want our children to gain.) Sadness about someone’s loss is a reflection of the fact that they mattered to us. Share what your feelings have been about various losses in your life.

But also talk about the wide range of reactions that people may have. Some may be sad. Some may be angry. Some may not seem to react at all. And some may react on a different schedule. It’s all OK.

Know when to move on.

Sometimes your child may ask more questions in the moment. Sometimes not. If your child has initiated a discussion about death, then seems ready to move on before you think “we’re done”, follow the child’s lead and move on. Prolonging the conversation will only cause discomfort.

Children learn through repetition, so expect that they make ask some questions again and again.

When a child is grieving.

Sometimes there losses that we would consider big in a child’s life where they don’t seem to react. Give them time and space for their own reaction. And other times, there are things we think of as small sadnesses – seeing a dead bird by the road, or a death in a storybook, where our child may suffer deep grief. Don’t dismiss them or tell them “don’t feel bad.” Honor their right to their feelings, whatever the cause.

Don’t avoid talking about the person who has died. Even though they’re no longer here, you can still remember them. They may want to do a ceremony, or create a shrine to help them remember. You could establish new traditions of continuing to do a favorite thing they did with the person who has passed away.

Your child may need help remembering the person won’t come back. They may ask again and again when they will return. They are not doing this to upset anyone. They’re just wrapping their minds around the permanency of death.

Your child may “play” death. They are just trying to understand. It’s fine to use puppets or stuffed animals to tell the story or play things out. It may also help your child to draw their feelings and memories.

Many children will regress or have behavioral challenges after a death of a loved one. Be patient and understanding with them, but don’t overly coddle them. Normal family rules should still apply. The sooner you get back to normal routines, the better. This helps you all move forward to the “new normal” of what your life will look like in the future.

Here are two helpful resources: 10 ways to help a grieving child and When Families Grieve from Sesame Street.

Funerals: If a loved one has died, you may decide not to have the child participate in the funeral. If they will attend the service, be sure to prepare them – telling them who they will sit with, how they should behave, and what will happen. For example,

 “Lots of people who loved Grandma will be there. We will sing, pray, and talk about Grandma’s life. People might cry and hug. People will say things like, ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ or, ‘My condolences.’ Those are polite and kind things to say to the family at a funeral. We can say, ‘Thank you,’ or, ‘Thanks for coming.’ You can stay near me and hold my hand if you want.”  (source)

If the person’s body will be at the service, talk to your child about that. (Note: although people worry that seeing a body would be upsetting to children, they typically take it in stride). Explain burial if they will go to the cemetery. Explain if there will be a wake or reception of some sort – explain that people will talk and share happy memories of the one who has passed.

If you expect to experience a lot of strong emotions at the funeral, you may want to either not bring the child or ask another adult to help care for the child and sit with the child during the service. Remind your child that it is not their fault you are sad.

Using Media to Start the Conversation

There are several excellent books and some shows that are explicitly designed to help children understand death and manage grief. There are also many excellent books and movies that include a death that you can use to help you start a conversation.

Here are recommended books: https://imaginationsoup.net/childrens-picture-books-grief-death/https://www.familyeducation.com/videos/12-childrens-books-help-explain-tragedies-deathhttps://pjlibrary.org/blog/january-2017/childrens-books-about-death.

Find  movies and shows listed here www.ranker.com/list/kids-entertainment-dealing-with-death/matt-manser, and here https://whatsyourgrief.com/death-in-disney-movies/ and here: www.commonsensemedia.org/lists/movies-to-help-kids-deal-with-grief 

Resources

Here’s a free printable handout on Talking with your Child about Death that you can share with others.

To learn how (and why) to talk about other difficult topics with your child (including sexuality, “tricky people”, scary topics, and more: read Better You Than YouTube.

Talking with Children about Sexuality

A lot of important topics fall under the umbrella of sexuality: anatomy, self care, body image, social norms, bodily autonomy, abuse prevention, consent, gender identity, sexual orientation, relationships and reproduction. These are not topics we save up for “the Talk” – one big conversation when our kid hits puberty! Instead, they are topics we can talk about a little at a time, in age appropriate ways, from when our children are very young. These open, matter of fact conversations not only give our children the information they need to stay safe and healthy, they also give us opportunities to share our family values, and to let our kids know that we are available as a resource to them. People who got accurate information from their parents, and know their parents are approachable for advice, are less likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, and less likely to have a teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection.  (Source, Source)

Here are common suggestions for topics to address and messages to share with your child. All families have their own set of values on these topics, and you know your own child best, so adapt these to fit your needs and what feels right to you.

  • Understanding Their Own Body, How It Works, and How to Keep It Healthy
    • Potty training (age 2 – 4) is a perfect time for teaching your child the names for their own body parts and products (penis, vagina, urethra, urine, bowel movement…) Teach the correct anatomical terms – this enables them to communicate with doctors in the future. (And can also help a child to clearly report sexual abuse.) Teach them how to care for their own bodies – how to wipe after using the toilet, and how to wash their own private parts.
    • When they become curious about other people’s bodies that are different from theirs (often age 4 – 6), answer their questions.
    • By age 8 or 9 – before they and their friends experience them, they need to know the basics of puberty, the menstrual cycle, and/or wet dreams / nocturnal emissions.
    • By age 10 – before they and their friends are likely to be sexually active, talk about sexual health, contraception, and prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STI). Also talk about the importance of delaying sexual activity till they are older.
  • How They Feel About Their Bodies – Body Image. Throughout your child’s life, be conscious of how you talk about your own body image in front of them, be aware of the impact of media messages and peer pressure, and reinforce healthy, realistic attitudes.
  • Understanding Social Norms about Nudity and Public vs. Private Behavior
    • Children under age 4 may naturally have ‘no shame’ about their bodies – they may show body parts to others, look at and touch other people’s bodies un-self-consciously. We want to teach them the idea of ‘private parts’ – the parts of the body that a swimsuit covers – and your family / cultural norms about where and in what contexts it’s appropriate to show them or touch them and where it is not appropriate. For example, some families say “It may feel good to touch your private parts, and it is OK to touch your own private parts, but only when you’re alone, and only in the bathroom or your bedroom.”
    • At age 4 – 6, children usually understand this, but they may occasionally try to sneak a peek at others, or touch others, or play “you show me yours, I’ll show you mine.” This is not deviant… Playing doctor is normal behavior at this age (as long as it’s between children the same age, it’s consensual for both, it’s motivated by curiosity and only happens rarely). However, you should set limits and calmly explain why this behavior is not allowed in your family. (Learn more baout sexual development and behavior in children: www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources/sexual_development_and_behavior_in_children.pdf)
    • This is also the time frame for potty humor, and then testing out swear words. Set limits for what is appropriate and in what contexts.
    • At age 7 – 12: Kids may play truth or dare style kissing games, look up words in the dictionary, or seek out pictures of nudity online. You can set parental controls and monitor media usage, but you should also talk to children about pornography and how it is designed for adults – tell them that if they encounter it on the internet, they should click away from it. (You might also talk about how pornography is often misogynistic and/or exploitative, and also that pornography sex is different than real world sex.)
    • It’s important for you to teach your child your family values and standards. For children ages 5 and up, explain that different people may have different standards.
  • Bodily Autonomy – Teach your children that their body belongs to them and ensure that they feel empowered to set limits on how others may touch them.
    • This can begin very young – when you are changing your child’s diaper or bathing them, you can talk with them about what you’re doing. Now, this doesn’t mean we ask permission to change a diaper. A lot of toddlers would say “no!” to that. But, we can still be respectful and explain to them what we are doing.
    • Don’t require that your child give hugs or kisses to anyone if they don’t want to.
    • Before tickling or rough-housing, ask them if they want that. Let them know that any time they want you to stop, all they have to do is say stop and you will. Also stop every once in a while and ask “are you having fun? Do you want to keep playing?”
    • For a child 3 or older, let them know it’s not OK for others to touch their private parts without permission. Even parents and doctors should ask if it’s OK, and explain why they need to touch them.
    • Talk about healthy touch – touch that is comforting, welcome, and pleasant – versus unhealthy – intrusive, unwelcome, uncomfortable. Tell them what to do, and who they can talk to, if someone touches them in a way that makes them uncomfortable.
    • Due to fears of abduction and abuse, we used to teach stranger danger. However, most crimes against children are done by people the child and the parents know. We need to instead teach about “tricky people.” Tricky people might try to arrange alone time with the child, ask the child to do something which breaks family rules, or doesn’t feel right, or ask the child to keep a secret. Learn how to teach about “tricky people” here: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2017/02/13/tricky-people/
  • Learning to Ask for Consent Before Touching Others
    • Around preschool, start encouraging your child to ask before giving hugs and kisses or climbing in someone’s lap. They should also not assume just because someone has welcomed their touch in the past means they want it right now. You might say: “I love having you in my lap, so usually I say yes, but ask first to be sure.”
    • You can apply consent in discipline situations: “Did you ask him if it was OK to hit him? If you had asked, what would he have said? Yeah, then it’s not OK to hit him.”
    • Read: “How Sex Educators Talk to their Sons About Consent
  • Gender Identity and Gender Roles
    • By 2 – 3 years, children begin to label themselves and others as male or female, By 3 – 4 years, they categorize thing as boy things or girl things, by 4 – 6, they say “only boys can do this” or ”girls never do that.” By 6 – 7 years children understand that boys grow up to be men, and that women aren’t “daddies.”
    • As they get older, their perception of gender roles will be highly influenced by peers, by the broader culture and by media. But the early years are an opportunity for you to share your family values and beliefs about gender roles and gender expression. Think about what you say and what you do, and how this shapes their views.
    • There are different components of gender: a person’s biological sex (their body parts), gender identity (do they view themselves as male or female), expression (how they dress, wear their hair, and move), and gender roles (what others expect them to be interested in or to do based on their perception of their gender).
    • Most of us were raised with a binary concept of gender – you are either male or female. There has been a significant cultural shift where the current generation of youth may have a view of gender more as a spectrum, which includes transgender, gender fluid, and gender non-conforming. To learn more about how to talk with your child about gender identity, see: plannedparenthood.org/learn/parents/
      preschool/how-do-i-talk-with-my-preschooler-about-identity
  • Sexual Orientation and Attraction
    • Kindergarten age children often explore the idea of couple relationships – “I’m going to marry her.” They may imitate relationship behaviors such as holding and kissing. 7 and 8 year olds may explore relationships “that’s my boyfriend” and may start to wonder about sex. They may be working to figure out the difference between liking a friend, loving a family member, being attracted to someone and being in love.
    • By age 4 or 5, most children have noticed in the families around them and in media messages that it is more common for men to marry women, and for boys to be in relationships with girls. Think about your family values about sexual orientation and same gender relationships and share those with your children with your words and actions. As your children get older, talk about how others may have different values.
  • Babies and Sex
    • Preschoolers will notice pregnant bellies and may tell you that babies come from mommies. And they may want to know how the baby will get out. But age 5, children may get curious about how the baby got in there.
    • For a preschooler, we might tell them that a man’s sperm and a woman’s egg make a baby, and the mother carries the baby in her uterus. For a 5 – 6 year old, many parents talk about how a man and woman lay together in a special way to make a baby. For older elementary students you may talk in more detail about sex, and also address the fact that sex can make a baby, but more often adults engage in sex because it feels good to adults.
  • Healthy Relationships with Others
    • Throughout your child’s early years, your words and actions, and those of other people in their lives model for them what to expect from relationships. Try to model healthy relationships. If there are unhealthy relationships in your environment, try to insulate young children from them, and talk to older children about them.
    • In general, a healthy relationship is one where you feel good about yourself, you feel supported and valued by the other person, and you feel safe with them.

When and How to Have the Conversation

Answer questions as they come up. (If the child is old enough to ask, they’re old enough to hear the answer.) But, be sure you know what question they’re asking, so you don’t either just tell them what they already know or give them way more than they’re asking for. Start with a brief answer, then ask “Does that answer your question?” or “Is there more you want to know?”

Look for teachable moments: When you happen to see something in a book, a movie, or while people watching that could lead into a conversation, just drop in a few little tidbits of information. Make these topics that are normal and comfortable to talk about. Watch their non-verbal cues for when it’s time to move on to another topic.

If there’s something you want to talk to them about, first ask them what they already know about that topic – that helps you set your conversation at the appropriate level of sophistication and also lets you catch and clear up any misconceptions they have.

Buy a book or two on the topics to keep on the shelf at home. For younger children, you may read them together. For older children, we often just have them available for them to use as a resource whenever they want to. They might not ever admit to you that they read the book, but you might notice some pages getting a little tattered over time as they seek out the information they want when they’re ready for it.

Recommended books for kids about sexuality:

For preschool ageAmazing You: Getting Smart About Your Private Parts, by Saltz. 

For early elementaryWhat’s the Big Secret? by Brown.

For upper elementaryIt’s So Amazing: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families by Harris. Age 7 – 10.

For additional book recommendations, and details on available books, check out my post on Books for Children about Sexuality.

Online Resources:

Sexual Development and Behavior in Children: www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files
/resources/sexual_development_and_behavior_in_children.pdf

Talking to Your Preschool Children about Sexuality: www.frfp.ca/parents-resources/parent-education/sexuality/talking-to-preschoolers-about-sexuality.pdf

Talking to Your Young Child About Sex: https://healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/preschool/Pages/Talking-to-Your-Young-Child-About-Sex.aspx

What Your Child Should Know… by 8 years old: http://birdsandbeesandkids.com/what-your-child-should-know-about-the-birds-bees-by-8-years-old/

Classes

Classes for parents:  Birds + Bees + Kids – Online or Seattle area

Classes for parents and pre-teens – Great Conversations – Washington, Oregon, and California.

Classes for kids: Unitarian Universalist churches and the United Church of Christ sponsor classes using a curriculum titled Our Whole Lives. They have programs for k-1, for 4th – 6th graders, for 7th – 9th grade, and for high school, and often welcome non church members to participate.

A Handout

If you’re a parent educator, and you’d like a handout on this topic to share, just click here: Talk about Sexuality With Kids. I also have free printable handouts on LOTS of other topics on my Materials for Parent Educators page.

Other Topics:

Are you wondering how to talk to your child about other challenging topics (like death, war, drugs and alcohol, and more? Check out Better You Than YouTube.)

Weapon Play

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In our Family Inventors class one week, we had giant tinker toys for the kids to play with. A group of boys designed and built three identical “blasters”. From a tinkering / creativity perspective, I was impressed at how they had worked together to create and replicate something cool.

But once a kid builds a gun, what usually comes next? Gun play.

They were pretending to shoot them at each other, and some kids were having fun, but one child was upset about being shot at. Since weapon play only comes up about once a year in my class, I had to decide in that moment how to respond. We have two simple rules in class:

1. “Be creative, not destructive” or in simpler terms, “Make, don’t break.”

2. “It’s never OK to hurt anyone.”

They had made something creative, but they were using it in a way that was hurting someone. Rather than asking them to take apart their new inventions, I decided to

  1. Set limits – “Our friend is not having fun. It’s not OK to pretend to shoot at him if it makes him sad.”
  2. Re-direct.  I suggested target shooting. I went to draw a target on the white board, but my husband had the even better idea of drawing asteroids on the white board that the kids would “blast apart” before they could crash into the earth. He would draw, erase, re-draw and so on as they blasted asteroids to save our planet.

It was a very fun game. And it re-framed their blasters. Instead of being weapons to (pretend to) hurt other people with, they were tools used to (pretend to) destroy dangerous objects in the distance before those objects could hurt people.

I also:

3. Followed up with the parents in the class to encourage them to think about how they wanted to speak to their kids about guns and weapon play at home.

This situation encouraged me to do some more thinking and more research into the topic. Although with all research, you can find studies to support either side of a topic, it was interesting to see what had been written.

Does aggressive play and weapon play increase actual aggression?

Parents worry that if young children play aggressively or pretend to use weapons, that they will become violent adults. The research shows that just the opposite may be true.

Researchers Hart and Tannock say “If playful aggression is supported, it is highly beneficial to child development. The act of pretending to be aggressive is not equivalent to being aggressive. Role reversal, cooperation, voluntary engagement, chasing and fleeing, restrained physical contact, smiling and laughing are common characteristics of playful aggression.” (Young Children’s Play Fighting and Use of War Toys.)

In one study, researchers found that children who displayed a lot of aggressive behavior in their pretend play were less aggressive in the classroom. The pretend play allowed them to work through some ideas so they did not have to bring them in to their real interactions. Other researchers argue that: “omission of aggressive play in early childhood programmes fosters the underdevelopment of social, emotional, physical, cognitive and communicative abilities in young children.” An example of this is when kids are engaged in rough and tumble play – say wrestling. If they accidentally hurt a friend while playing, they realize the impact of their actions, and we work them through the empathy and apology, and work on healing the relationship – it gives an opportunity we might not have had if wrestling was banned.

Several researchers and authors, including Stuart Brown, Frost and Jacobs, Peter Gray, and Charlie Hoehn have noted that many violent criminals have a history of being deprived of free-play opportunities as kids. Brown’s studies of homicidal males found that being deprived of play as children was strongly associated with violent criminal activity.  (Source)

So, we know that kids need to have lots of opportunities for free play to learn a wide variety of social and emotional skills. Kids, in my experience, naturally explore weapon play and aggressive scenarios in pretend play, but it appears that doing so may reduce the likelihood they’ll be violent and aggressive for real. So, given that, how do we, as parents or teachers (who are justifiably distressed by the idea of real gun violence in our country) find an approach to weapon play that feels right to us?

Sometimes we start by understanding the kids’ perspective.

What makes gun play so fascinating? Why are kids so interested in it?

  • Guns and other weapons are perceived as powerful. Kids often feel powerless, so the idea of power is intoxicating.
  • One way that children learn about and make sense of adult experiences is to play at them. So, if they watched a cooking show, they might play at cooking. If they watch a show with guns in it, they’ll want to play with guns.
  • Guns are a way to vanquish bad guys, or monsters. (Note: some children may use magic wands or pixie dust to accomplish the same goal. In both cases, it’s about vanquishing a foe.)

Given all these motivations toward weapon play, it can be hard to successfully ban it. Often attempts to ban it make it even more appealing as the “forbidden fruit.” So, how do we work with it?

Ways to Manage Gun Play:

Ban It: This is a choice many make. I don’t ban it, but if I sense play is moving in that direction, I often provide a distraction to move play in a different direction.

Re-Direct: You can try white board target shooting like we did, or if children are shooting  actual missiles (like Nerf guns) you can set up empty cans or some other object for them to try to hit and knock over. Or think about what type of energy the guns might shoot out – Teacher Tom tells a story of children firing “love shooters” at each other.

Some parents make the rule that you can’t shoot your gun at people, only at imaginary bad guys. (I’m not a fan of this one, because I don’t like the us/them mentality that can be common in many political circles, where people who are different are assumed to be “bad guys.” But, that’s a whole other discussion….)

Talk about the power of other options Talk to children about other ways to defeat (or reform or escape) from “bad guys” or other creatures that frighten them. Absolutely at other times in my class, I talk about all sorts of other options. I just find children are much more open to hear that in other contexts than when they are hearing it as the-words-the-teacher-says-when-she-stops-us-from-playing-what-we-wanted-to-play.

Set Limits: It’s fine to limit the times and places where weapon play is allowed. Maybe it’s an outdoor only thing, or only with one particular set of friends, not at school.

If the play is making you feel uncomfortable, you can say that. “I know you guys are playing, but it made me feel sad when you said you wanted to hurt your brother. So, I want you to move to a different game.”

Ask the kids to help make the rules: In a neighborhood squirt gun battle, not everyone wanted to play. I called the kids over and asked them what they thought fair rules were. One said “Only shoot at people who are playing.” I said “How do you know if they’re playing?” “If they have a squirt gun, you can shoot them.” We all agreed that seemed fair. One child had a smart phone in his hand, and said “don’t shoot people with phones!” I had my laptop and agreed “no shooting anyone who is working with electronics, because the water would ruin them.”

That was all the rules we needed for a while, till one child blasted another in the face with a super soaker. The soaked child was upset. New rule: no shooting in the face. Then a car pulled up and kids asked if they could shoot it, and we asked the driver, who agreed. We talked about how we know cars get wet all the time and it doesn’t hurt them, so generalized our rules to say that it was fine to squirt water at any car, but FIRST they needed to make sure all the windows were rolled up so no water could get inside.

Pay attention to other’s feelings: It’s also important to teach kids to notice the impact of their play on others. How do they know if someone else wants to play the shooting game or would rather not participate? (Encourage them to use words to ask, listen to words, notice body language, etc.)

Check In: When kids are engaged in weapon play, occasionally check in and ask: “Are you all having fun? Is anyone feeling worried or scared?” If anyone feels unsafe, the game needs to change. Encourage them to self-initiate occasional check-ins with friends to be sure everyone is having fun.

Think about the toys you buy. Try  to find open ended toys that can be played with in a wide variety of ways. They will, of course, sometimes use open-ended toys to create weapons (like tinker toy blasters, or sticks as swords), but at least they are open to other types of play.

If you do buy toy weapons, you may consider choosing ones that look nothing like a real weapon. Also, do safety checks: make sure toy weapons can’t cause real harm.

Consider choosing toys that are “powerful” but don’t tie into violence: If you choose action figures of a superhero or soldier or someone who always does battle, your child is likely to play at battles with it. Think instead about how a child plays with the action figures from “Paw Patrol” who have adventures as they rescue people. Or Spider-Man who swoops in to save people by carrying them away, and webs the bad guy to the wall for the police to pick up later.

Reduce exposure to media violence. And talk about media violence with your child in ways that reinforce your family’s values. (Common Sense Media is a great resource.)

Play Fighting vs. Intent to Harm

It is important to differentiate between play fighting and serious fighting. Play fighting has no intent to harm and is enjoyed by all participants. Even when kids are truly play fighting, it’s a good idea to closely monitor it, as sometimes a child will accidentally hurt another and the harmed child may strike out in real physical anger as a response.

Serious fighting is motivated by anger and a desire to harm, and must be handled with appropriate discipline tools.

Note: If a child has a pattern of purposely hurting other children, and either seems to enjoy that, or shows no empathy or remorse, that is concerning. and you may want to consult with a professional about the situation.

Teaching Empathy and Emotional Literacy

What I have described here on how I handle weapon play is a small portion of all the things I work to teach my children and my students. This conversation takes place in a much broader context, where we work a lot on kindness, empathy, and mutual respect, and where we actively teach emotional literacy skills. These are all essential to raising children to be good, caring adults.

Talk to your children about real guns

Children do need to know about real guns. We need to talk about them. This article in Slate does a fabulous job of addressing this topic.

We also have to understand that research shows that no matter how many times we tell a child not to touch a real gun, if they see one they are likely to touch it. So, we also need to talk with other adults about how to keep real guns away from our kids. Also, check out advice from Seattle Children’s Hospital about gun safety: http://www.seattlechildrens.org/Kids-Health/Parents/First-Aid-and-Safety/Home-Sweet-Home/Gun-Safety/.

Your mileage may vary

What I have written here comes from my own experience, and I need to address the privilege of my experience. As a white parent / teacher in an upper middle class, suburban, politically liberal city, real gun violence is not present in the day to day lives of my children or my students. What I feel is appropriate to my setting may or may not be appropriate to yours.

What I write here is about play and young children. As children get older, we will talk more to them about the real harms of real weapons, and more about the impacts of their actions on others. There is much more to consider on this topic as they age.

In my own experience. I grew up in Wyoming in the 60’s and 70’s. We played with cap guns, BB guns, squirt guns, toy bow and arrows, toy swords. I loved shooting all these things at siblings and friends! Yet, as an adult, I am an extreme pacifist. I have never touched an actual gun, by conscious choice, and I advocate for strict gun control laws. My siblings and childhood friends who were raised in the same environment vary in their choices: some keep guns in the home for self-defense, some own rifles for hunting, or enjoy target shooting. Others, like me, avoid guns. But none of my family or friends are aggressors – there are no cases of gun violence or gun accidents among us.

But what’s true for my family and friends was not universally true. When I was in junior high and high school, I lost 3 or 4 classmates to guns (suicides or accidental shootings), and had a classmate at my high school who had shot and killed his abusive father.

Two of my children are now adults. When they were young, I followed the guidelines I share here about weapon play. As they got older, we talked about guns and violence. I found that having had a well-thought out, open discussion about weapon play was a first step to meaningful conversations as they got older. For me, as a parent and teacher, this works better than trying to avoid the topic by banning weapon play.

Read more on this topic:

Time Out

Time Out is an important tool in the discipline toolbox, but it’s an easy one to mis-use or over-use, and it doesn’t work for all families, but let’s examine the best practices for time out.

(* Age note: For a two year old, we don’t really do a prolonged Time Out with this full method. We would instead: remove the child from the situation, hold them calmly for a minute or so, or sit with them till they’re calm, then let them return to play. )

What is Time Out?

First, let’s understand what it is: It’s Time Out from Positive Attention. Children like attention, so will act in the ways that get the most notice from their parents – whether it’s negative or positive attention. So, for mild misbehavior that’s just annoying, we use the “Ignoring” tool. For bigger issues, we use Time Out, which is spending time in a boring place, for a prescribed time, getting no attention. Time Out is a chance for your child to calm down (and for you to calm down), then return to better behavior. Time Out is not jail… it’s not intended to make your child suffer for their crimes.

Time Out will only be effective within the context of a supportive, loving relationship. If your child normally gets lots of positive attention from you, then Time Out is a big change from that. If your child is often ignored, Time Out isn’t much different, or the process of misbehaving and being sent to Time Out may be the way the child actually gets themselves some attention from the parent.

Developing Your Time Out Plan

Make your plan in advance for how you’ll use time out. (Springing the idea on an unsuspecting child in the middle of a meltdown is not going to work!)

Explain your plan to your child in advance, when everyone is calm. Practice it a few times at a family meeting so everyone knows exactly how it will work, and what the goals are of using it. Make sure your child clearly knows what behavior will lead to a time out.

When: What Behaviors Lead to Time Out

Time Out is best when used sparingly, for aggression – situations when your child is hurting someone or something, or for non-compliance – times when you have tried other discipline tools and your child continues to disobey. (Note: all young children ignore or disobey about 1 out of 3 commands. If a simple reminder gets them to comply, you won’t need Time Out – it is for more intentional or chronic non-compliance.)

Sometimes, you may want to send your child to a Time Out because you need a break. That’s not a fair use of Time Out. If you need a break, be honest about that, and take one. Do this before you explode

Where:

Select a place for Time Out. It should be:

  • Boring: Somewhere with no toys, books or screens to provide pleasant experiences.
  • Out of the way of the flow of traffic, so you don’t have to move past the child, and not in a place that tends to draw the attention of other children. (For example, the back of the classroom is better than the front, or just around the corner from the dining table where you can keep an eye on them but your other children can’t see them, is better than somewhere that will draw the attention of other kids (who then may try to provoke the child who is in Time Out.)
  • Safe: Bathrooms or kitchens can be dangerous places for kids to be without close supervision.
  • Some parents avoid the child’s bedroom as they don’t want the child to think of their room as a punitive place. Other parents, who focus more on the calm-down aspect of Time Out than the punitive aspect, may find that the bedroom works well.
  • You might choose to include a few calm down tools in this place, such as a Calm Down Bottle, a favorite stuffed animal, a stress ball, a weighted vest or blanket, or bubbles to blow.

Call this the Time Out Place or the Calming Place. It’s not “the naughty chair.”

If your child misbehaves in public, consider using another discipline tool. If Time Out makes the most sense, you can go to your car, or to a quiet corner with them while they take a Time Out from your attention.

How Long

For a three year old*, we set a baseline of three minutes, for a four year old four minutes. For older children, we start at 5 but increase up to 9 if needed. (See below.) Longer Time Outs are not effective and may just make the child resentful and resistant to future Time Outs.

When they’ve reached the minimum time requirement and they’ve had a calm voice and body for a couple minutes, then you can declare that Time Out is over. (They don’t decide… you do.)

Note: the first couple times you use Time Out, it may take them longer to calm down. (Even as long as 20 minutes.) In the long term, we want Time Out to be as brief as possible for them to calm down and return. We want to help them realize that if they can calm down right away, then they’ll get out of Time Out as soon as the time requirement is met.

What and How

  1. Describe the problem behavior clearly. State what behavior you would like to see.
  2. Warn that if the problem behavior continues, there will be a time out. (If you’re not willing to do a Time Out right now, then don’t threaten to do one… Empty threats make it less likely the tool will work in the future.)
  3. Give a clear command, including the reason. Keep it short and simple. “You did ___. Go to Time Out now.”
  4. What they should do in Time Out: The goal is that they learn to calm themselves down. They won’t initially know how to do that! Self-calming skills are something we need to be teaching at other times when they’re calm so they may be able to use them in Time Out eventually. At first, expect that they will stomp, kick, yell and whine a lot in Time Out. Over time, they will learn that this behavior doesn’t gain them anything, and they’ll give up on it.
  5. What you do when they’re in Time Out: Give them as little attention as possible. Try to move on with your day, not nagging them, responding to their pleas, and so on. If they yell, don’t yell back. If they ask “how many more minutes” you don’t have to respond. (You could choose to announce when a minute has passed.) You might need to use your own self-calming skills and positive self-talk at this time to stay calm.
  6. If there are other children with you, encourage them to “use their Ignoring Muscles” and tune out the person who is in Time Out. You can continue to play nicely with the other child(ren), giving positive attention to their positive behavior.
  7. Once the time requirement has been met, if the child has been calm for two minutes, release them. If not, simply use a When/Then statement. “Please work on calming yourself down. When you have been calm for two minutes, then you can come out of Time Out.”
  8. When time out is done, re-engage with your child, and praise their first positive behavior.

What if they resist?

  1. What if they resist going to Time Out? If they are 3 – 6 years old, you say “You can go to Time Out on your own or I can take you there.” If they don’t go, calmly take them there.  For a 6 – 10 year old, you say “I’m going to add an extra minute in Time Out. That’s 6 minutes.” Wait ten seconds. If they still don’t go, add another minute, up to 9. After that, add a consequence: “That’s 10 minutes now, and if you don’t go to Time Out right now, you will lose screen time privileges for tonight.” If they go to Time Out, after 10 minutes they’re done. If they won’t go to Time Out, we drop the power struggle over Time Out and they receive the consequence instead.
  2. What if they try to escape Time Out? You re-set the Time Out clock, and you say “If you come out again, then you will have this consequence.”

Using Time Out

It is best to develop a specific routine for Time Out, so you can do it the same way every time. Here are two sample scripts, based on the Incredible Years program:

Time Out for Aggression

“You hit. You need to go to Time Out.” Child goes to Time Out. Once time is up, and they have been calm for two minutes: “Your Time Out is Finished. You can play now.” As soon as you see any positive behavior, praise it – you’re returning positive attention to them.

Time Out for Non Compliance

This would be used for an on-going behavior challenge – such as when they’ve been resisting bedtime or doing chores or turning off the screen.

First, give a transition statement that tells them when you’ll be asking for a behavior and what you’ll ask for. “In five minutes, [your screen time will be over and you will need to calmly hand me the tablet].” Then, when the time comes, state a brief command. “Your time is up. Hand me the tablet now.” Wait 5 – 10 seconds for them to process the command. If they comply, praise and move on. If not, give an if/then warning about Time Out: “If you do not hand it to me now, then I’ll take it and you’ll have a time out.” Wait 5 – 10 seconds… if they don’t comply: “You didn’t give it to me. I am taking it. Go to Time Out.” If they refuse to go, or won’t stay in Time Out, warn of a consequence: “If you don’t go/stay in Time Out, then you will lose half your screen time for tomorrow.” After the Time Out is over and/or the consequence is imposed, then, if needed, return to the original command. (If this all started when you asked them to clean up and they refused to clean up, you can’t let that go… they still need to clean up. Otherwise, many kids would choose the 5 minute Time Out to avoid cleaning up!

Initial Resistance

Expect that the first few times you use Time Out there will be a lot of drama – they may resist, they may cry, they may throw things. After things are calm again, have another family meeting talking about what Time Out is, why you’re using it, and how it can be an easy solution if done well. Let them know that you will continue using it, and they can decide whether to make it a miserable experience for themselves, or whether to use it as a brief 5 minute calm down interlude that you can all move on quickly from.

Moving On From Time Out

Once time out is over, move on, don’t rehash. We all make mistakes, and need to come back in and try again. Don’t nag at them, let this be a clean slate moment. Give them positive attention and praise any positive behavior you see.

Important note: If they were using Time Out to get away from doing a chore, make sure they complete that chore after Time Out. Be matter of fact about this, giving positive feedback as they return to the work.

What Else Can You Do?

If you find yourself using Time Out every day, consider using other discipline methods for some of these situations. Choose a very limited set of behaviors that you will use Time Out for.

If you have been using Time Out for the same behavior repeatedly for multiple weeks, you need to form another strategy since it is not effectively changing behavior. (One thing to consider is whether or not your rules and expectation are developmentally appropriate for the child. Are you asking more of them than they’re capable of?) Seek help from a parent educator, teacher, or counselor if you need outside perspective to come up with new ideas.

Continue to teach other skills

Time Out does not teach your child what to do better. It can’t be used as your only discipline tool. Be sure to also be using positive attention, praise, guidance in what TO DO, teaching ways to understand and manage their big emotions, role modeling, and more to help your child learn how to behave better. When they’re mis-behaving, ask yourself whether consequences might be a better response than Time Out. Your long-term goal is self-discipline – raising a child who knows what it means to be a good person and behaves that way most of the time. Using a wide variety of these tools will help to teach them how to do this.

Learn More about Time Out

For lots more information and tips for effective time outs, check out the CDC’s guide to Using Timeout, read The Incredible Years or participate in an Incredible Years program. And if you like to know the research behind recommendations, check out: Weighing in on the Time Out Controversy and “The Role of Time-Out in a Comprehensive Approach for Addressing Challenging Behaviors of Preschool Children” (here or here)

 

Consequences

Two tools in your discipline toolbox are natural consequences, and logical consequences.

Natural Consequences

A natural consequence is what will happen if the child keeps doing what they are doing, and an adult does not intervene. Some examples:

  • If the child pulls the cat’s tail, the cat is likely to scratch the child’s hand.
  • If the child plays with a toy too roughly, the toy may break.
  • If they leave their cookie unattended on the picnic table while they play, the crows may steal it.
  • If the child doesn’t eat at a meal, they will be hungry later.
  • If they don’t bring their comic book inside, it may get ruined by rain.

We, as adults, might be able to foresee all of these natural consequences. But a child may not realize that these things could happen. So, it’s only fair that the parent advises the child of the possible problem: “If you [do this], then [that] will/might happen.” Sometimes, the parent might give a command to the child to stop the behavior and prevent the consequence. Or, sometimes the parent might inform the child of the possible result, then let the child make their own decision about what to do, and perhaps live with the consequences of their actions. Many parents think it’s important to do this at times – if we always protect and rescue our kids from all possible mistakes, they may not learn important lessons about the impact of their choices.

Natural consequences are best used when the results of the mistake will be a little painful so a lesson is learned, but not too painful. For example, if the child might break a $5 toy, you might not intervene, but if they’re about to break your laptop, you should stop them! If they might get a bump or a bruise, you might let that play through, but if they’re risking a broken bone, you will stop them.

Natural consequences are not administered by the parent. They’re the responsibility of the child – they took the action that caused the consequence.

Logical consequences

Logical consequences are imposed by the parent for misbehavior.

When entering a new situation, it’s the parent’s job to make sure the child knows what to expect, and what’s expected of them. We teach them how to be good. If they start a mild misbehavior, we might start correcting that by telling them what TO DO instead. But, if the misbehavior is getting worse, a consequence may be appropriate.

Generally*, you will give an “if / then” warning to let them know what’s coming so they have a chance to change behavior and avoid the consequence. Some examples, sorted into categories:

  • Removing the child from a situation where there’s an issue:
    • “If you run near the parking lot, then we’ll have to leave the playground.”
    • “If you knock the books off the library shelf, we’ll go home instead of going to story time.”
    • “If you are loud in the restaurant, then we won’t be able to stay to have dessert.”
  • Removing the problem item from them:
    • “If you don’t put away your toys, I will put them away and you won’t be able to play with them tomorrow.”
    • “If you two can’t share that toy nicely, then I will put it away for the rest of the play date.”
    • “If you knock your plate on the ground, then lunch is over and I won’t get you more food till afternoon snack time.”
  • Removing a privilege
    • “If you don’t finish your homework tonight, then no screen time tomorrow.”
    • “Since you hurt your friend, I can’t let you play tag anymore.”
    • “If you don’t put all your laundry in the basket, then no candy today.”
  • Requiring the child to do something to repair a situation.
    • “If you spill the water, you will have to clean it up.”
    • “If you break that, you’ll have to use your allowance to buy a new one.”

Make sure:

  • the consequence is developmentally appropriate
    • For a toddler, it has to be immediate and short term – if they start throwing blocks, you immediately pick them up and take them away from the blocks. Then you help them find a new activity to do. A few minutes later, they might wander back to the blocks and play with them appropriately.
    • For a preschooler, the consequence should still follow closely after the behavior but can last a little longer. If they are playing in a way that could break a toy, you take it away right away, and say “I’ll keep this safe till tomorrow, then we can try again.”
    • For an older child, the consequence can be more delayed and last longer. For a teenager, it could even be something like: “if you don’t do well on fall semester grades, then I won’t let you try out for the spring musical.”
  • the consequence is in proportion to how bad the behavior was
    • If a child spilled juice, you wouldn’t say “no drinks at the next five meals.” But you could say “no more juice today. If you are thirsty, you can have water.”
    • If a child failed to put away toys one time, you wouldn’t throw away all the toys. But the toys could “take a break” for a day or two.
  • you choose a consequence you can and will follow through on enforcing
    • Kids need to know they can trust their parents to keep their promises. That includes being consistent when applying consequences. Don’t go easy on the consequences and back down… if you do this once, they’ll try to beg you down on the next several times.
    • No empty threats. When you tell your child “if you don’t come right now, I’m leaving you here at the store and not coming back.” They know that’s not true. (And if they thought it was true, that would be very scary for them.)
  • you carry it out calmly, not with anger and shaming – consequences are not about punishing your child or making them “really regret” their choices – they’re about learning that their choices have impact and helping them learn the importance of better choices in the future.
  • as I said above*, generally you want to warn before imposing a consequence, so they have a chance to make a better choice. However, if they are hurting someone or something, there’s not a warning – it’s an immediate consequence. “You bit your friend. We are leaving the park now.” At a family meeting, when all is calmed down, you can discuss your rules with your child and establish in advance what behavior you consider unacceptable that will always warrant an immediate consequence.

For lots more on discipline, read The Discipline Toolbox, and follow the links in that post to find lots more tips.