Growing up, I can’t tell you how often I heard about being given “something to actually cry about” or how many times the family minivan was threatened to be “turned around right this minute” as the hours-long venture down the highway devolved into an array of are we there yets and stop touching mes. (Don’t worry, I turned out fine and was never actually given anything to cry about and the minivan continued its drive without ever being turned around despite how many times my dad emptily threatened to do just that.) Most of us can see possible issues in those phrases directed toward kiddos. But we may overlook the potential damage or influence some of our more innocuous or even off-hand phrases could have on our young children. Because part of parenting is the daily struggle to learn and improve, we compiled a little list of some phrases you may want to rethink using and some alternatives to try out instead.
“He’s a good baby”
Man, you’re lucky you got a good one. Because I heard that baby over there just robbed a bank, used the money for spray paint to graffiti the nearest National Park, and then went on a tire-slashing rampage in the parking lot before he grabbed his binky and started angelically snoozing in his stroller. Come on, is any baby bad? No! Sure, some may be more challenging than others in terms of sleep cycles and how much they spit up and whatnot, but I think we can all safely say there’s no malicious intent behind an infant having a hard time settling in for a nap or wanting to be held. We need to recognize that all babies are good. If we label only some as such, that inherently implies that others are bad. No one deserves to be labelled bad right out of the gate!
Instead, try saying:
He likes to be awake to see what’s going on.
He has strong opinions about what he wants to eat.
She never wants to miss out on the activity around her.
“She’s my mini-me”
Before my daughter was born and even when she was a toddler, I fully admit to selfishly (narcissistically even, maybe?) kinda sorta wishing she looked and acted just like me. (Should I even admit this?) But early on, it became increasingly obvious that appearance-wise, she would take after her dad and her personality was all her own. I admit it took a minute to adjust my expectations, but I realized I should celebrate her uniqueness. And each day, as she becomes more and more her own person, I appreciate how important it is for her to have an identity beyond one that I set out for her or one that she feels she needs to inhabit. Always referring to your child as a mini-version of you can stifle their own sense of self, confusing their identity with yours. We want to make sure we foster independence and safe self-expression within our kids from a young age. Additionally, as they get older, it’s especially important that your child sees you not as their twinning peer, but as their parent - the one who sets boundaries to keep them safe.
Instead, try saying:
We do look similar, but we each have our own unique personalities.
I can’t wait to see what fun things interest you.
What would you like to do today for fun?
“You’re ok! You’re fine!” or “Be tough, don’t cry!”
I know I’m definitely guilty of this one. Someone slips and scrapes a knee or a kick ball bounces on a startled toddler’s head or someone doesn’t get the color icing they want on a cookie and after that big tell-tale inhale before a released scream, I’m already saying, “You’re fine! You’re ok! You’re alright!” Welp, that immediately squashes my little one’s emotions and while a child’s response may not be ok - for instance, hitting when they feel angry - the emotion behind the action is valid and real. It’s important to acknowledge your child’s feelings. By dismissing their emotions quickly with assurances that they are fine, you can squelch the validity of their feelings, possibly establishing an unhealthy pattern. The same applies for telling your kids not to cry or to be tough when they are feeling frightened or vulnerable. This is where I get all touchy-feely, but we should never invalidate our children’s emotions. As adults, how would we like it if seconds after we stubbed our toes or got a piece of devastating news someone charged up to us cheerfully imploring us to be fine?
Instead, try saying:
I can tell you’re feeling scared/hurt/sad. Can you tell me about it?
It’s ok to feel angry/upset/frustrated. But we do not hit/scream/throw. Let’s figure out another way to express your feelings.
What’s upsetting you?
Why can’t you be more like So-and-So?
Positive peer pressure can be a wonderful tool when young kids are learning desirable skills - noticing things like putting on their own shoes or trying new foods at snack time. But, even though in moments of weakness you may be completely exasperated (I distinctly remember asking my son how he could still not buckle his own car seat when his sister had mastered it when she was a full year younger than he currently was - palm to face the minute it left my mouth), it’s best not to compare your little one to another. A comparison like that is by design going to bring up a short-coming or failure in your kiddo’s eyes. That can lead to feelings of insecurity and may even contribute to animosity or competition between your child and his peers or siblings. As parents, it’s our job to help positively build our child’s self-esteem as well as their abilities to collaborate and cooperate with other kids. You can’t learn to play well with others if you’re always feeling like you’re in competition with them or not measuring up as favorably!
Instead, try saying:
Let’s get in some extra practice on this skill.
Remember, when we are at story time, everyone listens quietly so we can all hear.
Too much or false praise
So we don’t want to compare our kids to other kiddos because it can be detrimental to their self esteem and we want to make sure that we praise them, but, we need to be careful that we’re not overly praising every…single…thing… they do. I think I can safely say we’ve all been at the park at least once and witnessed an adult who seems to be auditioning in an unnecessarily loud voice for a parenting Academy Award. “You’re the best sharer, Eloise!” “You did it on your first try! I knew you would!” “You’re the bravest, Eloise!” “You made a perfect sand castle!” “You’re amazing at the slide!” This always makes me squirm a bit - and not just out of annoyance. When we overly praise our kids for things that don’t necessarily warrant an effusive comment (or a trophy when they get older) it can register as hollow for the kiddos. And it’s really important to praise the effort, not the result. This helps kids learn to value perseverance and understand that perfection isn’t necessarily the goal, but rather improvement. Life will have some disappointments and struggles. That’s just the way it is. We need to make sure our kids have the tools to handle those disappointments. They need to develop a learning or growth mindset and if we constantly, and falsely, tell them that everything they do is perfect, they eventually figure out that it’s not. That realization can be very damaging in terms of self-esteem and their overall grit in working at tasks that take endurance and perseverance.
Instead, try saying:
I’m so proud of how you kept trying to tie your shoes. You’re really close to being able to do it all by yourself.
I really like how you made the waves in your ocean picture. Tell me about how you chose the color?
That’s a really creative way to solve the problem. How did you come up with your plan?
I love watching how hard you work to improve your letters.
So hopefully these ideas will give you a little to think about how you speak to and about your kiddos. And remember, we’re all bound to let something not great slip from our frustrated, tired, hungry, overworked mouths at some point. We’re human, after all. So don’t beat yourself up, but work to repair your relationship and interaction with your child as part of the process of raising a healthy, emotionally sound person. Your temporary shortcoming and effort to rectify it teaches your child through example that they can feel safe to express their emotions with you and safe to make mistakes and learn from those as well. And don’t forget, if something comes out wrong, following it up with a little talk and a simple I love you goes a long way. That’s a phrase kids can never hear too much!