There are certain phrases that just about every parent uses at some point. Even if you always swore to yourself you’d never say or do certain things once you had kids of your own, when the situation arises…those words just seem to tumble out. After all, if your kid looks like they’re about to do something dangerous, you pretty much have to yell, “Be careful!” Don’t you?
It turns out that a lot of common parenting phrases are less than ideal. They might send the wrong message, interfere with kids’ developing social-emotional skills, or cause unnecessary conflicts or behavior issues because our kids don’t know what we actually expect. Read on to discover what’s wrong with eleven of these phrases, and what you can say instead.
Often when kids take a little tumble or start crying over something that seems small, our first instinct as parents is to say, “You’re OK!” We’re just trying to reassure them or get them to calm down (a.k.a. prevent a scene), but there’s a better approach.
Jumping in to declare “You’re OK” when a kid is upset can cause them to feel misunderstood, contradict how they’re actually feeling in the moment, and even make them less likely to share their emotions in the future. Try some of these options instead.
Do you ever catch yourself calling out “Be nice!” to your kid on the playground—and then get frustrated when they’re still not acting…well, nice? That’s because “Be nice” is just too vague—kids don’t necessarily know what behavior we’re looking for when we say that.
Plus, being nice/kind/respectful is totally subjective! Something that feels good to one person, like getting splashed while playing in the water, might not feel good to another.
Here are some phrases to try that are a lot more helpful and specific than “Be nice.” These approaches take practice, but will help teach your child to behave respectfully in future social interactions!
No kidding, it’s science: Whining is one of the most irritating sounds on the planet! And for good reason—whining is shown to cause a stress response in adults that makes them pay attention (which is exactly what your kiddo wants).
Unfortunately, saying, “Stop whining” doesn’t work—and it also ignores the underlying reasons and emotions behind the whining. Kids often whine because they’re exhausted and need help, they need some connection with you, or they just haven’t learned a better way to get what they want. Addressing the reason they’re whining (and fulfilling those needs) is much easier than trying to get them to stop whining!
Here are some more productive responses to try instead of “stop whining.” But first, take a pause and make sure YOUR voice sounds calm and polite!
When we tell our kids “be good,” “behave,” or “don’t get into trouble,” are we sending the right message? Like the phrase, “Be nice,” one big problem with these phrases is that they’re too vague. Kids might not know exactly what you’re asking them to do or not do.
Another issue is that it implies that you expect them to do something “bad”—and that’s not really a message we want our kids internalizing! Which of these language swaps will you use next time you’re tempted to tell your kiddo to “be good”?
“Say you’re sorry.”
When our kid makes a mistake or hurts someone’s feelings, our first reaction is usually to prompt them to say they’re sorry. The trouble is, forced apologies aren’t very effective.
First of all, they don’t mean the person is actually sorry. And second, they don’t make the other person feel better either. So how do you get kids to learn to make amends in a genuine way, that actually helps repair the harm?
The keys are:
1️⃣ To get them to think about how the other person feels—because empathy leads to genuine apologies.
2️⃣ To encourage them to think of ways to make amends—which is what makes the other person actually feel better.
Here are some ways to start, rather than immediately urging them to say sorry!
Kids can be LOUD, and they don’t exactly notice when they’re disturbing someone else.
But shushing never works, and yelling “Be quiet!” is just counterproductive. Kids need a reminder or distraction that shifts their energy into something other than using their voice at top volume! Next time you’re tempted to tell your kiddos to be quiet, try one of these alternatives instead.
One of our biggest jobs as parents is to encourage our kids as they learn to navigate the world. Yes, this means cheering them on, but that can be trickier than it seems. Not all the ways we try to boost our kids’ confidence actually lead to more growth and improvement!
So what can you say that’s more effective than “good job”? Here are some unique compliments and positive phrases you can use to support your child to keep learning, trying, and improving every day while also preparing them for the challenges of life—so you can help them have the healthy confidence to make their dreams come true.
Telling kids to “be careful” all the time isn’t specific enough to be useful, AND it can cause kids to simply become anxious about taking risks in life. But most kids—especially toddlers and preschoolers—are both active AND impulsive, which is a sure recipe for making parents nervous.
It helps to remember that our job as parents isn’t to protect our kids from all harm—it’s to guide them through solving their own problems, making safe decisions, and being aware of their surroundings. To do that we need to take on a different mindset. So every time you’re tempted to say “be careful,” you can try one of these phrases instead.
All parents urge their kids to “hurry up or you’ll make us late,” but does it ever help?
Kids dawdle because they’re kids—they live in the here and now, and (unfortunately) don’t share the same priorities about timeliness. So instead of letting your stress take over and shouting “come on, let’s go!” for the millionth time, take a deep breath and find something that appeals to your kid that you can use in a positive way.
What do you usually say or do when you’re running late with your kids?
Sometimes the difference between hurt feelings or an argument—and a healthy discussion with your child—is a simple, small shift in the words you use. Saying “but” negates everything you said before it, by making whatever you say next sound more important.
“I love you, but we have to go.”
Saying “at the same time” shows your child that both parts of what you said are true, and validates that they can coexist:
“I love you. At the same time, it’s getting late and we need to get home for dinner.”
Try this at home, and notice how your kids react differently!
“Don’t be bossy.”
When we say things like “Don’t be so bossy” or “Nobody likes a tattletale” to kids, what message are we sending? That we don’t want them to be confident leaders, to share their opinions, or to communicate well?
You can re-frame the label “bossy” (and the sometimes related “tattletale”) and instead be a lot more specific in feedback to kids. Because when you think about it, there’s actually a lot to admire in “bossy” behavior and personality traits. Try these alternatives that encourage kids’ developing confidence and leadership skills—while redirecting those skills when necessary. You’ll be doing your part to cultivate our future leaders and change-makers!
A few simple vocabulary changes can make a huge difference in how our kids see themselves, and how our relationship with them develops. Try some of these swaps, and see the difference in your family.