8 parenting phrases you probably say that can totally backfire

Parenting

As a developmental psychologist who helps parents and children learn best practices for maintaining caring relationships, Lele Diamond thinks a lot about what adults should and shouldn’t say to kids. And yet, when her nephew loomed over her niece with a lightsaber, she heard herself say: “Oh, no, thank you!”

“That is absolutely not what you want to be saying when you’re warning somebody off of physical violence,” she says.

Don’t get her wrong—it’s a good thing that parents these days recognize the need to be positive and warm in their communication with their kids. What’s not so great are the verbal tics we’ve developed to take the edge off when trying to correct undesirable behaviour and be effusive in reinforcing what we like. The experts say many of us are getting it wrong with these phrases. Luckily, there are some easy swaps.

PARENTING PHRASE #1: “No, thank you”

Why it backfires: The phrase “No, thank you” in place of “don’t” or “stop” has gained popularity with parents in recent years. But Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, says the true purpose of “No, thank you” is to communicate “I don’t want that, but thank you for offering it to me.” When caregivers use it to soften a “no”—for example, in response to a child trying to snatch something from our hands—we send a confusing message. It also misses the mark on helping kids understand why their behaviour isn’t working, adds Toronto-based parenting coach Sarah Rosensweet. What’s more, in her experience, “no, thank you” can be disingenuous, with a parent feeling disapproving and even upset but uttering this saccharine phrase in a sing-songy voice.

The phrase is also seen by some as dangerous for girls specifically. “It tells them an assertive ‘no’ is not acceptable,” says Diamond, and that they always have to “put things in a way that takes care of the other person.”

What to say instead: It’s simple: Just say no. “It’s okay to set a really stern, firm limit,” says Markham. Rosensweet suggests starting a sentence with “Let’s not …” and finishing with an explanation (for example, “Let’s not wrap that cord around your sister’s neck. I know it makes the perfect puppy leash, but the only way for her to get air is through her throat and she could get hurt badly”). What if you accidentally say it out of habit? “Just correct it in the moment,” says Diamond. You could say, “Actually, cancel that. What I meant was ‘no.’ Just ‘no.’” Modeling the ability to backtrack and fix a mistake can in fact be more potent than just doing it right the first time, she says.

PARENTING PHRASE #2: “We don’t” or “big kids don’t”

Why it backfires: When a parent says “We don’t do that in this family,” it feels to a child like we’re telling them they’re wrong for having the desire, and that all of us good, kind people don’t have similar impulses, says Diamond.

If your kid just hit their sibling and you respond with, “We don’t hit in this family,” it can sound to your kid like “they are outside the family and don’t belong,” says Rosensweet. She adds that it’s a phrase meant to shame, and can introduce insecurity.

What to say instead: Rather than “we don’t hit,” try empathizing: “I see you’re frustrated, and I totally get why you would want to smack your brother. Last week my boss made me so angry I wanted to throw a highlighter at her!” Then focus on simple truths (“Getting hit will hurt her body and her feelings”) and propose alternative behavior (“Tell her why you’re angry” or “Tear up this sheet of paper into as many pieces as you can”). Maren Schmidt, the early childhood educator behind the popular Montessori newsletter Kids Talk, says parents would be smart to phrase instructions in terms of what a child should do, not what they shouldn’t do. So while “don’t bite” is better than “we don’t bite,” “be gentle” and “chew food, not arms” are more constructive.

PARENTING PHRASE #3: “Hands are not for hitting”

Why it backfires: This statement might work well for very young children who quite literally don’t know yet that hitting isn’t OK, but it’s condescending otherwise. “Unless your child is under two, they already know this,” says Rosensweet. “It’s not an information gap. They’re doing it because they can’t help it, because they are disregulated. So responding with ‘hands are not for hitting’ is like, no shit.”

What to say instead: When a kid who knows better hits, it’s because they need help managing their emotions and resolving a conflict in a more acceptable way, says Rosensweet. Jump in and help. Don’t treat them like they’re an idiot who forgot the rule.

PARENTING PHRASE #4: “Was that a good choice?”

Why it backfires: Your child is angry at their sibling and whacks them with a toy. After you console the hurt kid, you turn to the angry kid and ask, “Was that a good choice?” But what kids will hear is, “Was the choice to get angry a good choice or a bad choice?” Trouble is, the emotion wasn’t a choice at all, says Diamond. “It was an experience that happened to them.” To frame it as a choice “is like saying that they want to be bad,” says Rosensweet.

What’s more, a child’s calculus can be complicated: “From the perspective of, ‘Was it effective in helping me vent my anger?’ Well, yeah, it was, but I’m not getting the lightsaber back for a whole week now,” says Diamond. Markham echoes Diamond’s point: “The kid already knows it’s a choice the grown-ups didn’t want him to make.”

So why do parents even say this? “Parental sadism,” says Diamond. In moments of frustration, a lot of us will end up shaming our kids. “Like, ‘you have been torturing me for an hour so I’m asking you this question, because I want you to suffer a little bit,’” she explains.

What to say instead: “You must have been so upset with your sister—tell me about it,” acknowledges the complexity of a child’s choice, and it’s a way to connect before trying to correct or redirect, Markham says. Even a subtle change—most importantly, dropping the shorthand to show you really want to engage in a back-and-forth and not just rub their nose in a mistake—can work. Diamond suggests: “Did the choice to keep standing there over your sister work out well for you, or is there something else that you wish you would have done?” The idea is to find a way to genuinely ask “What were you thinking?” without wielding those words like a judgmental weapon.

When you’re pretty sure your kid made a considered, unemotional choice to, say, draw on the walls with markers, asking them if they think they made a good choice, or how they feel about it, won’t be as effective calmly issuing a logical consequence: “The markers will live on top of the refrigerator now, and you’ll have to ask when you want to use them. In a week, we can try again to see if they can live on your table and find their way onto paper, not walls.” Then plop your kid in the tub with washable paints to address the underlying need for a fun, transgressive-feeling outlet for their creativity.

PARENTING PHRASE #5: “Use your words”

Why it backfires: This phrase is so popular, it even made its way into a Daniel Tiger song: “Are you sad? Are you hungry? Do you need a hug? Or you want someone to play? Use your words and say how you feel. Use your words, use your words!” 

While being able to do so would be lovely for everyone involved, Markham says it’s often not possible: “Children don’t know what words to say, and in a moment of upset, they are cut off from the actual thinking part of the brain.”

“I hate ‘use your words’ so much,” says Rosensweet. “If they could use their words, they would!” Imagine being truly upset in a conversation with your partner, crying and shouting, and they tell you to use your words. It would not go over well, Rosensweet says: “It’s like nails on a blackboard.”

What to say instead: Markham recommends giving the child the specific words they need: “You can tell your brother, ‘Move please.’ You can tell your sister, ‘I’d like a turn.’ Put the words right in their mouth,” she says.

PARENTING PHRASE #6: “OK?”

Why it backfires: “It’s time to put on your jammies, OK?” Almost every parent is guilty of this one. But when we say say this, we’re not really asking. Usually, we’re just trying to get buy-in, or reassurance of their intent to cooperate. But Schmidt, the Montessori guru, warns that by ending your request with “OK?” your kid might think they have a choice, and in most cases, you’re not truly offering one. The way Rosensweet sees it, when adding “OK?” to an instruction, you’re either intending to follow through regardless of how they respond and are a little insincere in asking, or you are giving up your role as a strong leader. Neither is a great option.

What to say instead: Just drop the “OK?” and maybe sub it with a “please” or a “thank you.”

“It’s reasonable to use please when you give your children guidance,” says Markham. She suggests, “We’re in the library now, so you need to lower your voice, please,” and adds that, “It’s very reasonable to thank them after we do it (‘I really appreciate how you lowered your voice when we entered the library’).” Just make sure you don’t throw out a “thank you” when the child hasn’t done anything to merit one!

PARENTING PHRASE #7: “Good job,” “I’m proud of you,” and “Good girl/boy” 

Why it backfires: “Good job” is one of Diamond’s least favourite phrases, and the research backs her up. For example, research finds that the more we say “good job” to a child, the less they raise their hand in class. Why? Without us meddling, kids act out of natural curiosity and internal motivation. Overusing phrases like “good job!” and “so proud of you!” turns kids into “praise junkies,” says Markham, and creates a kid who is dependent on external affirmation. What’s more, these phrases don’t even accomplish parents’ primary goal—making children feel seen and heard and appreciated—because, “it sounds reflexive, like a social nicety, or like something you might not really mean.”

“Giving our kids ‘good job’ tickets when they do stuff that conforms to our ideal of what a child should be gets in the way of appreciating who they really are,” says Schmidt. “Good boy” and “good girl” also imply conditionality, suggesting your child is only valued when behaving or achieving. The end result? Potentially lowering self-esteem and resilience, not boosting them.

What to say instead: “You did it!” mirrors your child’s own enthusiasm rather than assessing whatever it is they’ve done. Getting more specific also works—describe what you saw and then use a word that sums it up, Schmidt suggests. For example: “I see you figured that puzzle out all by yourself. That’s what I call sticking with it!” Markham likes to point out the benefits of the accomplishment for the child so they “can decide whether to repeat the behaviour to get that good feeling inside.” That includes pride. “You must feel so proud of yourself” sounds similar to “I’m proud of you” but it sends kids a different message.

PARENTING PHRASE #8: “You’re so smart” and “You’re the best”

Why it backfires: The work of American psychologist Carol Dweck revealed that kids who hear these phrases begin to internalize that they should be able to get things right on the first try. Rather than seeing their brains as muscles that grow stronger with use and their current skill sets as temporary, everything feels fixed. Calling the phrase “insidious,” Markham says she actually forbade her mother-in-law from testing her son on the colours and then saying, “You’re so smart,” when he got one right. “Sooner or later, she’s going to get to a colour he doesn’t know, and what happens then?” He’ll think, “I guess I’m not smart after all.” Then there’s a dad she knows who routinely tells his ballet-loving daughter that she’s the best dancer. “She’s only five—she’s not the best dancer in the world,” sighs Markham. Implying otherwise puts potentially harmful pressure on a child and makes them think life is a performance. Despite parents’ best intentions, what children hear is, “I only love you when ….”

“When we feel that conditionality, it really can shape who we become,” says Rosensweet.

What to say instead: Here too, the trick is to flex your brain a little and get descriptive. For example: “You just kept trying and you figured out how to attach that stuffed animal to your purse!” Parents are often told to praise effort, not just the results, and that’s key, but don’t forget to also speak to your child’s pleasure, says Markham. Phrases like, “You are really enjoying dancing these days, aren’t you?” also draw children into conversation instead of evaluating.

“What parents need to know,” she says, “is that the best kind of encouragement is to enjoy what your child is doing.” And a stock phrase can’t do that. “There’s an aspect of building a core sense of self based on being recognized by others,” Diamond says, and only responding to kids with specificity and intentionality does the trick. There are no shortcuts.

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