Children learn how to be people by watching and listening to their parents, which means that parents rewrite the social contract one decision or statement at a time. That’s a lot of pressure so it pays to have a strategy or, to go one better, a list of words and phrases that parents shouldn’t say to their kid and a list of words to say all the time. Words are powerful and sticky. They need to be repeated or omitted with intention.
When their children are little, parents have an opportunity to lift them up with language. Using the right words can help a kid become thoughtful and kind, not only with themselves but with peers and strangers as they grow older. These, then, are the magic parental words, including the one most already know, but sometimes forget to use.
“I Love You”
Using the phrase “I love you” might seem obvious, but there are plenty of parents who are slow to profess their love and use the phrase too infrequently. This has traditionally been the case for the strong, silent father who believes that emotions are best kept inside and actions speak louder than words.
But that’s not true. Actions can carry myriad interpretations, but without speaking the reason for action it remains a mystery, particularly for kids, who often need stuff spelled out. Saying “I love you” is unambiguous. It is a statement that has weight. And contrary to popular belief the weight does not diminish with “overuse.”
The phrase “I love you” should be used loudly and often, and not just when a child has done something that a parent might deem worthy of love. In fact, saying “I love you,” often has the most power when a child is feeling most in danger of losing their parents’ love.
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Say, “I love you,” after a time-out. Say, “I love you,” before they walk out onto the Little League field and then first thing when they walk off, whether they were triumphant or not. Say, “I love you,” when they leave for school and say it again when they come home. Say it when they cry and when they laugh. Just say it.
“I Don’t Know”
Parents feel like they should know everything, though they rarely do. And there’s nothing wrong with a parent acknowledging to their child that they do not have an answer. It’s certainly better than making something up, which could backfire as they get older.
Saying “I don’t know” is perfectly reasonable, but should also be followed up by an effort to find out. That’s not crazy hard to do. This is a world in which the answers to almost everything a kid would want to know can be found on the supercomputers found in most everyone’s pocket.
The power of “I don’t know” is that it is a launch pad for showing kids the power of research, learning, and curiosity. It’s a gateway to developing a shared understanding of the world, one Google search or library trip at a time.
Parents sometimes default to an attitude that children are little servants bound by duty to just do what an adult says, when they are told to do it. That’s a serious power trip, and speaks more to a parent’s desperate need for control than it does to reality.
Saying please may seem like perfunctory politeness but there’s much more to the word, particularly for children. There is a reason please is the magic word. It denotes a request, and acknowledges that the person receiving a request has free will to say no. “Please” also confirms the effort and inconvenience that might be inherent in answering a request. In short, please is a word the champions agency and humanity.
Far from decreasing a parent’s power, saying please can actually increase the respect a child feels for their parent, as they themselves feel respected. More respect means more compliance.
And even if saying please is simply a matter of politeness, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Parents who want a polite kid should use the word as often as they’d like to hear it. There are enough power trips in the world. Everyone should be on board with kindness.
All of the reasons to say please are also all of the reasons to say thank you. There is a reason they’re conjoined in our lexicon. They are the verbal bookends of respect. And kids who feel respected give respect in turn.
But thank you can be used without please, too. And when used on its own can be a vehicle for surprise acknowledgment. A thank you given without a please is a prompt for a kid to say “for what?” That means parents have their undivided attention for some well-placed praised. And everyone knows it’s hard to feel more proud than receiving a praise and a thank you out of the blue, just for doing something natural.
Thank you is the key tool for positive reinforcement. It should be used often.
Every parent wants a kid who has some humility because a child who refuses to accept they are wrong is a nightmare. A kid who can’t apologize is a kid who struggles with empathy. They fail to see the trouble or hurt they’ve caused. They are a few steps away from being a straight-up bully.
Parents can help a kid with empathy by apologizing for their own wrongs. Of course, that means a parent has to be cognizant of their own wrongs and admit to not being perfect. But saying “I’m sorry” for an accident or a bad decision that affects a kid is a great way to show a kid how to express empathy. When a parent says they are sorry, they are also saying that they recognize the emotional (or maybe even physical) pain they’ve caused. They’re showing that it’s important to take another person’s perspective and begin reconciliation.
Saying “I’m sorry” is a much better way for parents to have children willing to apologize. At any rate, it allows parents to be a good example, rather than cajoling and forcing a child to apologize.
“I Hear You”
Sometimes the reason kids act out or have tantrums is because they feel it’s the only way to be heard. The simple answer is for parents to tell them they are heard before it gets to point of being a serious behavioral issue.
But the phrase must go beyond a curt “I hear you.” It’s best used when paired with a recognition of their emotions: “I hear you’re sad because you don’t want to go to bed.” “I hear you’re frustrated because you want to watch another show.”
This is another way to help a kid understand empathy while feeling like their point has been received. Why get loud and crazy if they’ve already got their message across?
“Is That True?”
The question “Is that true?” is not necessarily common for parents, but it should be. It is the one phrase that can help a kid get past their constant negative thoughts.
It’s super easy for children to build a narrative where they are the victim. That narrative results in a downward spiral of “nobody likes me, everybody hates me, might as well go eat worms.” But kids are also smart enough that if you challenge their perceptions they will take a moment to think critically about what they’re saying.
Asking a kid who says something like, “I never get what I want,” if what they’ve said is true is a great way to disrupt a negative thought process. It opens the door for a little bit of nuance and makes problems that seem huge and intractable a bit more easy to tackle and conquer.
Parents should say “yes” more. It’s that simple. The default is too often “no.” And the reason the default is “no” is that parents want nothing more than to assert their power.
But the problem is that”no” is a roadblock. It is a brick wall. It’s a great way to keep kids and parents from actually having a good time.
A surprising thing happens when parents say yes more often. Not only do their kids behave better, they reveal themselves to be fairly reasonable creative individuals. That’s an insight that can be truly extraordinary. In other words, saying yes is one of the best and surefire ways for parents to get closer to their kids.
Does that mean parents shouldn’t say no at all? No. Obviously, there are times that for health and safety reasons a kid should be stopped dead in their tracks with a loud and unambiguous “no.”
But saying “no” should not be a parental default. Does it take work to get to yes? Absolutely. It’s a matter of reprogramming the parental brain so that instead of coming from a place of dominance, decisions are made from a place of collaboration. It isn’t easy. But the rewards of yes are sweet.