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


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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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Great Classes for Kids AND Parents: Parent Education & Coop Preschools

Classrooms in the Bellevue College Program

Classrooms in the Bellevue College Program – click for larger view

Are you a parent of a baby, toddler, or preschool age child? Are you looking for:

  • A place where your child can explore toys, do art, hear stories, sing songs, and make friends? (And use up some energy on a cold winter day?)
  • A fun activity to do with your child where s/he learns new skills and you get new ideas?
  • Opportunities to meet other families and build community?
  • Expert advice and research-based information about parenting and child development?
  • Support from professionals and other parents for the challenges of life with a little one?

You can find all these great opportunities in one place!

In the Seattle area, our community colleges sponsor parent education programs, including parent-child programs and cooperative preschools, which are a fabulous resource for families. For children, classes offer hands-on learning, discovery and play. For adults, they offer on-going education on all topics related to parenting, plus connections to other parents.

What is the children’s experience like?

The programs are play-based, because research shows children learn best through hands-on exploration in places where they feel safe and free to explore. Each classroom has several stations around the room, with developmentally appropriate activities to help kids build the skills they need. Children are encouraged to move around and explore at their own pace. In parent-child programs (aka “mommy and me classes”) for babies and toddlers, parents play along with their children. In coop preschools, working parents are assigned to a station. Activities vary by age, but might include:

  • Art activities: play-dough to roll, easels to paint at, markers for learning to write
  • Sensory activities: tubs of water or rice or beans to scoop, pour, stir, and run fingers through
  • Large motor: mats for tumbling, tunnels to crawl through, climbers and slides, balls to throw, dancing and movement games
  • Small motor: blocks to stack, puzzles to assemble, shape sorters to solve, beads to thread, and building toys for construction
  • Imaginary play: dress up zone for trying on new roles, dolls to care for, kitchen for “cooking”
  • Science and nature experiences: seeds to plant, tadpoles to watch, items from nature to explore
  • Snack time: a place to practice social skills and table manners and to discover new foods
stations

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Classes also include “circle time” or “music class” where the teacher leads the class in singing songs, dancing, playing musical instruments, and reading stories. This is a chance for children to practice sitting still, listening to a teacher, and participating in a group activity, all essential skills for kindergarten readiness. Academic skill-building (reading, writing, pre-math skills) is integrated into all types of activities.

What makes these children’s programs different from other programs?

Diverse Experiences in One Familiar Setting: Most children’s programs focus on one domain of learning: dance class, art class, story time, music class, or tumbling. These programs do it all. And they do it in a known space where the child feels safe and comfortable. Some of the same toys activities reappear from week to week to provide reassurance and routine, and some new toys and activities rotate in to encourage children to explore and try new things.

Long-Term Relationships: Lots of programs run in short sessions of 4 – 6 classes. Parent ed programs run for the full school year. Seeing the same children week after week allows kids to build friendships.

Close parental involvement: Parents are always welcome in the classroom.

What are they like from the parent perspective: how do they work?

Each program works a bit differently, so check to be sure of the details, but here is the general idea:

Parent-infant Classes and Parent-Toddler Classes: Meet weekly for two hours. Every other week, the parents attend a one hour parent education session. In infant classes (for babies birth to one year old), the baby remains with the parent for parent ed. In toddler classes (for one-year-old and two-year-old toddlers), children are encouraged to play in one room with the children’s teachers and other parents while their parent attends parent ed.

Staffing and Parents’ Role: Each class is staffed by a parent educator and one or two children’s teachers. Parents provide snacks for the class on a rotating basis. Each family may bring snacks 1 – 3 times a year. Parents may also be asked to help tidy up the toys at the end of the class.

Cooperative Preschools:Three-year-olds may attend 2 or 3 days a week, four-year-olds attend 3 or 4 days a week. Typically, the parent stays with the child and works in the classroom one day per week, and the other days are “drop-off” preschool for that family. Classes may be 2 – 3 hours long.

Staffing: There is a preschool teacher, trained in early childhood education, who is responsible for planning and coordinating the children’s activities, and leading group times. A parent educator observes / consults during some class sessions, and offers a monthly parent education session plus one-on-one expert parenting advice.

Parents contribute by working in the classroom once a week. They also help with the running of the school by: providing snacks, fundraising support, helping with end-of-year cleanings, serving on the board (chair, treasurer, secretary, etc.), or as class photographer, play-dough maker, etc.

Length of program: Most classes (parent-child and coops) meet for the full school year – September through May. [Note: you may be able to enroll mid-year, if there are spaces available. Check with the programs to find out.] Some have summer programs.

What do Programs Cost?

For some programs, you pay by the month, some by the quarter, some by the year. If you look at the cost for a quarter (11 weeks) or year (33 weeks), it may look like a lot compared to other children’s activities in the community. So, to compare apples to apples, it’s best to look at it as cost-per-hour. Infant and toddler groups at our local community colleges range from $7.50 – 11.50 per hour. For comparison’s sake, here’s what a sample of other programs cost on an hourly basis:

  • Big motor activities: Gymboree $30, Gymnastics East $20, Northwest Aerials $13
  • Parent education and support: Mommy Matters $22 plus child care costs. Baby Peppers $10.
  • Art programs: Kidsquest $17 per hour. Kirkland Parks $13. Kirkland Arts Center $10.
  • Music programs: Kindermusik $22, Kirkland Parks $11. Bellevue Parks $21.

Cooperative preschools in these programs range from $7.50 – 10.00 an hour. For comparison sake:

  • Bellevue public schools, $10 per hour. Bellevue Boys & Girls Club $10. Bellevue Christian School $11. Bellevue Montessori $18. Jewish Day School $19. Villa Academy $18. Seattle Waldorf $22. Cedar Crest $24.
  • Note: most preschools have an adult/child ratio ranging from 1:6 – 1:9. At a coop, the ratio may be 1:3 or 1:4.

All the parent education programs and cooperative preschools offer scholarships to lower income families which can further reduce the cost.

What makes these programs different from other programs?

College credit and student privileges: Parent education programs are college classes, and parents receive college credit for attending. They can also receive student ID cards, which depending on the school may give access to services such as fitness center or gym access. They may also allow you to get student discounts at a wide variety of local and online businesses.

Parent Education: Experienced professional educators offer information that is current and research-based but also relevant to the day-to-day reality of parenting little ones. Topics are tailored to the age and needs of the families, but may include: daily routines, discipline, child development, early learning, nutrition, potty training, emotional intelligence, kindergarten readiness, and self-care for parents.

Individualized Advice: Parent educators and children’s teachers have the opportunity to get to know each child as an individual, and also get to know parents well. This allows them to answer questions in a highly personalized way. They can also refer on for additional services when needed.

Parent Involvement: Participating in your child’s classroom from day one encourages you to think of yourself as an active participant in your child’s learning and an advocate for them in future classrooms. You’ll know the other children and can help your child learn about them. You’ll know what happened in class, so you can later reinforce the learning. Seeing classroom activities may give you new ideas for what you can do at home to enhance your child’s development. Having the opportunity to observe other children each week helps give you a deeper understanding of child development, and seeing parents respond to their children shows you options for parenting style.

Peer Support and Long-Term Relationships: Parents meet with other parents over the course of many months, which allows for long-term connections. Working together on projects strengthens those bonds, as does the peer support gained when parents discuss and share the joys and challenges of caring for kids.

Programs offer classes for families with children from birth through age 5, so instead of having to search for new classes every month or every year, you always know where you can find a fun and educational class for you and your child.

Learn More about Programs Near You and Register Now!

Note: Classes for each school year start in September but it is best to register in spring or summer, because they do fill up!

Program Name / Website Locations * Ages Served / Programs
Bellevue College
www.bellevuecollege.edu/parented/
Bellevue, Carnation, Issaquah, Mercer Island, Renton, Sammamish, Snoqualmie Birth to 7: Parent-Child (day & eve), Coops, Inventors’ Lab (formerly Dad & Me), Art & Science Enrichment. Summer
Edmonds Community College
www.edcc.edu/pared/
Edmonds, Lake Stevens, Lynnwood, Marysville, Mill Creek, Snohomish Birth to 5: Parent-Child, Coop Preschool, Summer
Green River CC. Limited info available on their website: www.greenriver.edu/academics/areas-of-study/details/parent-child-education.htm. Auburn area, birth to age 6. Learn more by searching for: Benson Hill Coop in Kent, Tahoma Coop in Maple Valley, Covington Coop, and Darcy Read in Des Moines.
Lake WA Institute of Technologywww.lwtech.edu/parented Bothell, Kirkland, Redmond, Woodinville Birth to 5 yrs: Parent-Child and Coop Preschool
North Seattle Community Collegehttp://coops.northseattle.edu/ 12 sites in Seattle, from north of ship canal to NE 145th. Vashon. Birth to 5: Parent-Child (day and evening), Coop Preschool
Seattle Central Community College.
Links to coop websites: www.itc210.cleobrim.com/about/resources/off-campus-coops/
7 sites in Seattle: Capitol Hill, Mt. Baker, Madison Pk, Rainier Val, Queen Anne One to 5 yrs: Parent-Child and Coop Preschool; Dad’s, Summer
Shoreline Community Collegewww.shoreline.edu/parenting-education/ Shoreline, Bothell, Inglemoor (Kirkland), Woodinville Birth to 5 yrs: Parent-Child and Coop Preschool, summer, evening
South Seattle Community College https://sites.google.com/a/southseattle.edu/homelife/ or http://westseattlepreschools.org/ SCCC campus, Admiral, Alki, Arbor Heights, Lincoln Park Birth to 5 yrs: Parent-Child and Coop Preschool, Spanish

*Not all ages served at all sites. For example, most programs only have infant classes at one site.

Would you like to print this information for your reference or to share with a friend? Get the PDF here.

If you want more information right now about parenting, look in the “categories” section on the right hand column and click through to any topic that interests you (for example, you can read my posts about tantrums or potty training or choosing a preschool or find lyrics to songs your child will love.) To receive updates as I publish new articles, go to the right hand column and click on “like on Facebook.”

Note: this is an update of a post from 2014

Tot Lot Park – Kirkland

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I’ve heard about Tot Lot for years and finally made it there… its claim to fame is that it’s a fully fenced park, so it’s easy to sit and relax while your tots have fairly free run of the space. (Another fully fenced park is Phyllis Needy, in southern Kirkland.) It’s also flat, so there’s not the walking challenge for new walkers that some of our hilly parks pose.

The main climbing structure is pictured above, and is good for the 2 – 6 year old crowd.

There are three swings: a kids’ swing, a toddler bucket swing, and an ADA swing.

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There’s also a cement turtle sculpture kids can climb on that’s surrounded by wood chips. (Many people call this “the turtle park.”)

There’s a car built of pipes you can climb in to and on to.

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There’s a fun sandbox area. Families have left lots of sand toys to play with. (There’s also lots of ride-upon toys scattered freely about the grass.)

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When we were there in early June, there was a GREAT old slide, but it’s slated to be replaced sometime this summer, and I’m not sure when that’s happening. (It may have already happened). It’s an old style metal slide, with three bumps. They’re big enough bumps that our 42 pound kid “catches air” going over them. He’d say “ouch, ouch, ouch” on the way down as he went over each bump, but he continued to ride the slide over and over, so I think he liked it.

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There’s a fair amount of shade at the park. There’s a couple picnic tables in the shade for snack time or for parents to sit and socialize at. There’s a trash can just outside the gate – they ask that you pack your stuff out if possible, but if not, please use the trashcan, don’t leave your trash! There is a porta-potty there.

There’s also a pea patch program at Tot Lot.

More info at: Active Rain; My Parks and Recreation.

The park is at 111 9th Ave, just north of downtown Kirkland.

For reviews of more local parks, click on the words Seattle area in the right sidebar (on desktops – or scroll to the bottom on mobile devices). Or click on toddler dates for ideas for cheap fun things to do with toddlers

Should we teach toddlers to say “I’m sorry”

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My short answer:

  • Yes, teach the behavior – teach when it is appropriate to apologize. Also teach that they can take actions that help to right their wrong.
  • However, you can’t expect a young child to really feel sorry. As they get older, they will learn this empathy and learn to take responsibility for their actions.
  • Don’t force a child to apologize. This is perceived by the child as punishment and shaming, and does nothing to teach them empathy for the other person or teach them what steps to take to make things better.

The long answer…

Should you force a child to apologize?

We’ve all seen times where a parent marches their child over to someone, then stands over the child saying “You need to apologize. You have to say you’re sorry, right now.”

Some children feel embarrassed or awkward, and stare at the ground, and shuffle their feet, and get more and more anxious until forced to blurt out the word. Others get into a power struggle with their parent, inflating a small transgression into a big battle, where the parent adds additional punishments – “no dessert till you say you’re sorry” till the child says a sarcastic ‘sorry’ through clenched teeth. Some kids will figure out that they should just get it over as quickly as possible, and mumble out the word “sorry” without looking at the person the apology is theoretically directed at, and then try to escape the situation as quickly as possible, moving away from the parent and from the person they apologized to.

When apologies are used in this way, the child views apologies as a punishment for bad behavior.

Got that? The apology is something you’re making them do because they were bad. They’re not learning “you shouldn’t hit your friend because it hurts him and makes him sad.” They’re learning “you shouldn’t hit your friend because if your parent / teacher sees you hit them, you’ll get this punishment.”

A forced apology is unpleasant and uncomfortable for everyone involved, and this awkwardness distances the apologizer from the person they are making the apology to. It does not encourage empathy toward that person’s experience, and instead can promote resentment toward them. The person being apologized to often feels awkward as well, and moves away from the apologizer as quickly as they can.

For older kids who understand what sorry means, forcing them to say it when they don’t mean it is teaching them to lie.

The forced sorry can also feel like it “fixed” the situation. We hurt someone, but we said sorry so it’s resolved now, right? It implies that there’s no need to check in to see if it’s resolved, or to take any further actions to right our wrong.

Should we teach a child to apologize? What does it mean to apologize?

Of course we should teach apologies! We absolutely want to take steps in the toddler years and preschool years to teach empathy, to teach taking responsibility for our actions, and to teach the social skills that will aid them in later life. A true apology is an essential aspect of this.

A true apology is not just good manners. It’s not just accepting blame for something. It’s taking responsibility for your actions, feeling empathy for the person you have wronged, and working to make amends.

Here’s the thing – we can’t expect children to fully understand this when they’re toddlers or preschoolers! They are not yet capable of true empathy. We can role model empathy and working to right wrongs, and we can teach the behavior of apologizing – the understanding will eventually follow.

Role model and teach empathy

If you want your child to learn empathy, respect and responsibility, the best way to teach that is to be a good role model of all these things in all your interactions, but especially in interactions with your child. (Note: being empathetic does NOT mean I say yes to everything to avoid making them sad, and being respectful does NOT mean I don’t set reasonable and healthy limits. We can say no with empathy and with respect.)

Development of empathy

As young as one year, a child may occasionally notice distress in others and try to soothe them. But other times, they are oblivious to the emotions of others.

Around 18 – 24 months, a child starts to really understand that they are a separate individual from other people and that other people can have different thoughts and feelings than they do. But being able to put themselves in someone’s shoes and see how their actions made someone feel is just more than they can understand.

At 2 – 3 years, they begin to understand simple emotions in others, such as glad, mad, sad, and scared. Around 4 or 5, they start understanding complex emotions in others. After age 6, they begin to understand what other people are thinking. (See resources below on empathy.)

So, we know it’s a while before they get the feeling side of an apology. But, we can teach the behavior long before that.

Teach the behavior at teachable moments

Starting around 1 year old, you can teach your child basic behaviors. Your child will sometimes accidentally hurt you or someone else – moments like when they bump their head into your chin when you’re bending over them. This gives you the chance to teach them. It’s easy to teach even a young toddler that “When you bump me, and I say ‘Ow’, you need to say ‘I’m sorry – are you OK?'” If they carelessly bump someone else, like moving past someone to get to the slide, say “I notice you just bumped them. Can you go back, say you’re sorry and ask if they’re OK?” If they take a toy away from someone without thinking, say “I think X was playing with that toy. Say ‘I’m sorry I took your toy. Is it OK if I play with it?'”

Note, these are all low stress moments. Your child has unintentionally (or slightly intentionally) harmed someone, and we’re asking them to notice this, and make amends. This teaches more awareness of others, which leads toward empathy.

Some preschool teachers choose to skip the ‘I’m sorry’, and go straight to the “Are you OK?” or “What can I do to help?” because those focus on empathy for the other person and moving toward a solution together.

Teaching the behavior after stressful moments

Other times, your child does intentional harm. We need to set limits on this and there need to be consequences. But the consequences for your child are about the behavior itself, and the apology is about caring for the other person. The consequences need to be separate from the apology.

I recommend: disciplining your child as appropriate to the moment, and working on the apology later. The misbehaving toddler needs immediate consequences for bad behavior. The wronged toddler needs immediate reassurance. Apologies come later.

For example, if you see A bite B:

  • Get down to their level and put yourself between them to prevent further harm.
  • Say to A “You just bit her. That was not OK. Biting is never OK.” [Setting limits.]
  • Turn to B, establish eye contact. Say “I’m sorry he bit you. Are you OK?” [Providing reassurance, and role modeling an apology.] Once you’ve verified she’s OK,
  • Turn back to A: “You and I need to take a break from playing for a few minutes till you’ve calmed down.” [Consequences.]
  • Help A to calm down. Don’t talk too much here! (When a child is upset enough to bite, they are too upset to listen to you, and too upset to learn anything, especially something as sophisticated as empathy for the person they’ve just harmed.)
  • Once A is calmed down, then talk to him about biting [reminder of limits] and let him know that his actions hurt the other child [focusing the attention on making amends rather than on his wrong-doing].
  • I will say “Let’s go check on her together and see how she’s doing.” I get down on the same level as both kids, and I encourage him “ask her if she’s OK.” After they’ve connected, then I say “you hurt her earlier. Can you please say you’re sorry?”
  • Then I help them begin to play together again before moving away. [healing the relationship]

In this scenario, the biting toddler received the immediate limit setting and consequence they needed. The child who was bit received prompt attention and reassurance. Later on, we handled the apology and moving on.

How do you resolve the situation with the other parent

Let’s be honest. Sometimes we force our child to apologize because we, as the parents, are embarrassed about our child’s behavior, and we don’t want the other family to think that we’re bad parents. How do we handle that?

In the moment after the incident, we work with the children. They need immediate responses to understand.

If we handle it well, the other parent (who has a longer attention span and memory than the children) sees that we did address the situation in a way that was supportive to everyone, set limits, and taught empathy skills. Later on, we can also talk it over with the parent, and apologize, and talk together about how we’re all just doing our best to help our kids learn.

Are reparations needed?

Sometimes an empathetic sorry is all that’s needed. But sometimes we need to take actions to make things right. (Like re-building a tower, fixing a broken toy, cleaning up a mess.) Help your child figure out what to do in these circumstances.

The power of real apologies to heal relationships

In a study, 6 and 7 year olds were paired with a researcher and asked to build towers of plastic cups. Then the adult would “accidentally” knock over the child’s tower. The adult would either apologize OR say nothing, and then leave the room. Right after the incident, the children felt bad whether or not they received an apology. Later on, though, when children were asked to give stickers to their adult partner, the ones who had received apologies were more generous – presumably indicating they had forgiven their partner.

However, if the adult apologized AND helped re-build the tower, the children felt better right after the incident and gave more stickers later. According to the researcher “actively trying to put things right can help the victim to feel better in a couple of ways. The first is the effect of undoing some of the harm by putting things right. The second effect is by showing the victim that the person who hurt them is sincere and genuinely wants to make things better between them.”  (Source)

My experience

When my older kids were little (back in the 90’s!), I did not teach them to say “sorry” until they were four or five years old. I’d seen too many forced apologies, and too many times where the kid saying the word sorry was clearly not feeling the emotion of sorry. They were just doing what they had to do to complete their punishment.

When my older kids were little, if they did wrong to someone, I apologized for them, and I worked with them to correct their behavior. I only started teaching sorry when they demonstrated enough empathy that I thought they were old enough to understand it. (Probably around 4 years old.)

With child #3, when he was just learning to talk, I started teaching the behavior of “If you do something to someone and they say ‘Ow’, you need to say ‘I’m sorry. Are you OK?'” And every single time an opportunity came up, I reminded him of this behavior. He didn’t yet understand that he was responsible for hurting someone and he didn’t yet have empathy for the fact that they were in pain, because he just wasn’t old enough for his brain to be able to understand it. But, he could, and did, learn the behavior.

Over time, I saw him start to get it. He would say sorry out of habit, and then when he asked “are you OK?” he would notice that they weren’t OK, and feel empathy for them. He started to understand that their sadness was due to what he had done and he started to take responsibility for it. I feel like he ended up understanding the meaning of sorry (both taking responsibility and feeling empathy for the other) much younger than my other kids, because the behavior caused him to pay attention to those situations.

He’s now five, and often offers spontaneous apologies for any minor wrong he does to people. Sometimes when he’s really angry, the apology doesn’t come right away. That’s when I have to return to the method I describe above of: setting limits on him, reassuring the other child, and then when he’s calmed down helping him understand what he has done and working with him to make the apology. He’s still learning, because he is only 5 years old. Some days it comes easier than others, but I feel like we’re on the right path.

Read more about apologies

Learn more about empathy – how children develop it and how you can help

Learn more about emotional development

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.” 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.”

Huh??

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”

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:

  1. 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.)
  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 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 did that just right
What a perfect building you built!

 

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.
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.

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 always…

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)

Don’t cry

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.

Shut up.

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.

Discipline is grounded in Relationship

scribble

Last night, in a class discussion about discipline, we were sharing examples of discipline challenges. One mom said sometimes when she puts out paper and markers, she tells her child he needs to keep the markers on the paper, and not draw off the edges of the paper onto the table. Yet, he often draws off the edges, looking up at her to see her reaction.

There are several possible responses to this situation: You could change the environment to make it easier for him to succeed: place a big piece of newspaper under the art paper so if he draws off the edges it doesn’t matter. You could create a game that makes it easier to succeed by telling him what to do: “I drew a big turtle here. Can you color in the turtle’s shell? This is a re-direction: telling him a different activity to focus on with the same objects. And you can “catch him being good” by noticing what a good job he does of staying on the paper most of the time. You could use substitution – giving him different materials to do the same action with. “I see you really love doing big giant scribbles. We can’t do that on the table. Let’s get some chalk and go draw on the sidewalk.” (Or water to paint the fence with, or a giant piece of paper on the floor.) You could model by sitting next to him and drawing yourself. You could think about whether he’s developmentally ready for the task: maybe he’s just not old enough to keep the marker on the paper reliably. If you think it’s purposeful misbehavior (not just that he’s young and goes off the paper by accident) you could set limits and consequences: “It’s not OK to draw on the table. If you do it again, I will need to take away the markers and paper.”

So, which one of these possible actions do you do? What will work best in the short-term and the long-term to move your child toward behaving like you want him to? (This being the goal of discipline.)

The answer: it depends.

Temperament: I often say that the type of parenting your child needs depends on their temperament. For example, for most children, it works well to put on your voice of authority in discipline situations and speak sternly to them so they know you’re serious. But, there are a few children who are easily distressed by a stern voice or strong words (possibly those whose love language is words of affirmation). They will feel ashamed or anxious if you use this tone. They may instead need you to be gentle and say quietly “I love you and I’m concerned about you. How can we help you do better?”

Motivation: I also think that what form of discipline works depends on your motivation and your child’s motivation. For example, if you really want your child to love doing art, you might think about ways to do art that don’t make messes that trouble you, so you might take your child and the chalk and go outside. But, if your motivation was to get your child to sit still for just a minute while you cook, then you may try something other than an art project. If your child loves doing art, then the consequence of “I will take away the markers” would be a big motivator to try to do things differently. But if they’re not that motivated to do art, then they’ll probably just continue drawing on the table so you will take the markers away and maybe give them something they think is more interesting to do.

For more thoughts on motivation, read this post on Motivation, Punishment and Reward.

Relationship: But today, as I thought about temperament and I thought about motivation, I realized that really the key to deciding which discipline tool will work for you and your child in the moment is Relationship.

  • Relationship helps you understand their temperament and know how you need to adapt your message so they hear and respond to it.
  • Relationship helps you understand their motivations. If you know someone well, then you will know whether it would be more effective to say “if you can do this [good behavior], then you can have this [thing you want]” or “if you continue to do that [bad behavior], I’m going to have to enforce this consequence you don’t want.”
  • If you have a loving and trusting relationship, they will believe you when you say things like “I love you. But that behavior was not OK, so I needed it to stop. I know you can do better in the future.” If you have to enforce consequences, they’ll know that they weren’t done out of anger or lack of love for them, but were instead done to help motivate them toward better behavior.
  • If you have a positive relationship and positive expectations for your child, they will want to live up to those expectations and be worthy of your respect.

Effective discipline needs to be based in a consistent, reliable, respectful relationship.

There are some “discipline tools” which don’t honor this. For example, any discipline that involves shaming your child doesn’t come from a positive relationship place. “You are so bad. You know not to do that but you keep on doing it because you’re a bad kid.” Shame might re-direct their behavior in the short run, but it doesn’t lead to them feeling good about themselves or about you. Another example is physical punishment, such as spanking. Physical punishment done in anger is very frightening to a child and very damaging to a relationship. But even well-reasoned, “logical” punishment is not the best discipline tool. It does work to change behavior in the short-term. But, it doesn’t motivate the child to do better in the future, especially when the punishing parent is out of sight. So, in our example from above: if every time a child drew on the table, you slapped their hands, they would probably stop drawing on the table. But, they would have less trust in you, and consider art and drawing to be stressful and unpleasant activities.

Instead, it is best if discipline comes from a place of: “I love you and I want to help you grow up to be a good person. I know that you’re still figuring out what that means, and testing your limits, so you’re going to do bad things sometimes. That’s normal… but it’s not OK. When you do bad things, I will stop you, and I will tell you how to do better in the future. Because I know that you can be a good person.”

Because relationship is so key to discipline, remember this: No matter which discipline tool you use to respond to a situation, the very first thing you need to do is connect to your child: get down to their level, look in their eyes, or touch them gently. Make sure you have their attention. Then you can re-direct, or substitute, or set limits, or whatever. And they will hear you, and remember that your request comes from the relationship: you love them and you want them to be safe and successful. To remember this step, use the mantra: Connect to Correct.

 

photo credit: Sam’s first mastrpiece (recto) via photopin (license)

Discipline Tools Posters

When discussing Discipline, I use a tool I developed called the Discipline Flow Chart. It covers 6 steps:

  1. Prevent Behavior Problems
  2. When a problem begins, decide whether intervention is needed. (Pick your battles.)
  3. Instead of telling your child “Don’t Do X” or “Stop Y”, tell them what TO DO. A young child is often not able to think of alternatives, so tell them a positive action to take, and that’s often all you need do.
  4. If the problem is escalating, or is already at the point where more direct intervention is needed, let your child know a) what the problem is, and b) what the consequences will be if the problem continues.
  5. If the problem is at the point where immediate intervention is needed (especially if there’s imminent risk of harm to someone or something), then immediately enforce consequences: either remove the child from the situation, or remove the problematic item from the child.
  6. Move on. Let your child know that you still love them, but that their behavior was not OK, and you won’t let them do it now or in the future. Give a hug, and let it go.

Students asked for a poster to summarize this, so here’s the Discipline Flow Chart Mini Poster. I also have posters I hang in class, and students asked for a mini version of the discipline tools posters