Parents: Ever feel like a broken record talking to your kids? We say the same things over and over again and wonder why they just don’t listen.
Maybe the problem isn’t just with kids listening, but also with what we’re telling them.
When we put more thought into how to talk to kids, we can connect with them better and reduce our own frustrations.
Here are 6 useless phrases parents need to stop saying to their kids:
1. “Be Careful!”
Why it’s useless: Kids need specific, actionable directives. The generic “be careful” does not tell them what to do. It’s also so overused (just listen to moms on the playground), it has lost all significance.
What to say instead: Be specific! Say exactly what you’re concerned about. “You need to have walking feet in flip flops because it’s easy to trip.” “Did you notice the big crack in the pavement right there?” “Please walk slowly when carrying a tall glass of milk.”
Also, assess the situation. Do your kids actually need to be more careful, or are you underestimating their ability? It might make you nervous to see your child zipping around on their new bike. But if they are wearing a helmet and appropriate gear, you should probably fight the urge shout “be careful!” every 8 seconds. If they fall, they will learn on their own how to ride safely, and shouting “be careful” isn’t likely to prevent any falls anyway.
2. “Calm Down.”
Why it’s useless: Have you ever seen that meme on Facebook that says “Never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down by being told to calm down”? Yeah, that.
What to say instead:
- Take a deep breath with me.
- Let’s count to 10.
- Look around the room and tell me 10 things you see.
- You are safe.
- How can I help you right now?
3. “Stop Crying.”
Why it’s useless: Same reasoning as “calm down”. We are all guilty of saying it, but it isn’t going to help.
What to say instead: Focus on validating their feelings, even if it seems like something not worth crying over. (To them, it is.)
- It’s ok to feel sad. I feel sad sometimes too.
- Do you need a hug?
- How can we solve this?
A distraction might also help, but don’t use distractions without first validating the child’s feelings. Think of it this way: You might love wine, but if you’re crying to your partner about the horrible day you had, do you want his response to be “here’s a glass of wine”? Or would you feel better with “wow, that does sound like a bad day. I’m sorry you didn’t get that gig you worked so hard for. Would a glass of wine help?”
4. “Let Me Do That.”
Why it’s useless: This is Mom Code for “I can do that better than you can.” Your kid knows you can do it better, but they don’t need their self-confidence and independence shot down by having you remind them of that.
What to say instead: If your child is managing the task on their own, you need not say anything.
- If they seem to be getting frustrated, ask “would you like any help with that?” If they say no, back off.
- When possible, validate their efforts. “You’re making a lot of progress with shoe tying. Last time you didn’t get as close as you did this time!”
- Even if they are completely failing at the task at hand, you can still frame it in a positive way with something like, “It makes me happy to see you trying new things.”
Why it’s useless: Ok so I’m not saying the word “no” is useless. There is certainly a time an a place where “no” is the only acceptable answer. The issue is when everything is “no”- especially for certain kids where the word “no” is a guaranteed trigger for tantrums or meltdowns.
What to say instead: Always try to frame the answer in a positive if at all possible. For example, child A asks to go to the park when they have ignored their daily responsibilities. Rather than a blanket “no”, spin it around so they hear the part they want to hear first. “We can definitely go to the park as soon as your homework is done.” This emphasizes what they want to do while still including the steps they need to take first.
If there is no positive, a message of understanding and a basic explanation will probably go over better than a flat-out “no”. One of my children is constantly asking for desserts for breakfast even though she knows I’m not going to say yes. If I just answer with “no”, she will continue asking again. A validating explanation can hold her off from asking again in the near future. “That cake we had last night was really good, wasn’t it? I can see why you’re still thinking about it. We don’t have dessert for breakfast though because it won’t fuel your body for the day.”
6. “Good job!”
Why it’s useless: I know you’ve all heard this one before. Beware the dangers of overpraising our children! They will stop putting effort in and become arrogant! Ok so like all parenting trends, take that with a grain of salt. I really don’t think it is going to any damage to say “good job” to your kids. However there are other more thoughtful responses you could give that would encourage your child a bit more.
What to say instead: Praise their effort or a specific detail of their accomplishment.
- I can see how hard you worked on that painting!
- It was very creative of you to make the sky pink!
- I love watching you do artwork!
All kids are different and we parents know we can’t read off a script and have it work for all children. But by following basic principles of how to talk to kids (and really, all people) we can avoid at least some of the conflict and frustration that goes along with parenting. When we validate their feelings, they feel understood. When we give explanations, they will be more likely to follow directions. With a little effort, we can stop wasting our breath on useless phrases and improve communication with our kids.