Parents say things all the time to bolster their kid’s ego, avoid tantrums or keep everyone on schedule. There’s nothing wrong with that – or is there?
Turns out that many of the common, often benign-sounding parenting phrases actually can send the wrong message to children, experts say.
So we enlisted three specialists – a psychologist, a pediatrician and a magazine editor – to help us rephrase and redirect our intentions. Here are five common phrases and their more appropriate – and effective – alternatives.
“You’re so smart”
Research shows that kids who are heavily praised take fewer risks, are less self-motivated and less likely to find the intrinsic joy in their activities, says Lucie Hemmen, a Santa Cruz, Calif., psychologist who specializes in adolescents.
“Parents think they have to insert themselves into their child’s activity by making a comment about everything,” she says. “Well, they don’t. You don’t want kids to be dependent on praising and become externally focused rather than internally focused.”
Instead of generalities, such as “Great job” or “You’re smart,” try to be specific, Hemmen says. Then, get lost. Example: “Wow, you’re really on a roll with that painting. Tell me about the colors you’re using. Can I bring you some extra brushes?”
“Don’t make a mess”
Messes are an inherent part of the learning process, especially for the preschool and kindergarten set, explains Parents magazine senior editor David Sparrow, a father of two. “They simply don’t learn in an organized way, so it’s your job to limit what messes they do make,” he says.
Sparrow means no playing with food at the dinner table, obviously, but as long as their mess is part of a creative project, just make sure your budding artist does it outside or on top of enough newspapers to protect your precious carpet.
“Let me help you”
If a child is struggling with opening a jar or tying his shoelaces, it’s tempting to sweep in and do it for him. Tempting, but wrong.
“It is critical to teach our children problem-solving and frustration tolerance if we want them to compete in the global market,” Hemmen says. “Employers talk about wanting people who are innovative and problem solvers, and if parents can’t tolerate watching their child work out problems, they might inadvertently rob the child of that exploration and critical skill development.”
Instead, stay close but allow them to work through their challenges, encouraging different tactics. Try: “I can see you’re trying to figure that out. Have you tried turning it this way?”
“No dessert unless you clean your plate”
This double-whammy is loaded with danger zones. First, the idea of eating everything on one’s plate prevents children from recognizing when they’re satiated. “Kids have totally forgotten that feeling of being satisfied,” says June Tester, a pediatrician and childhood obesity expert with Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute in Oakland, Calif. “We must explain to them that we eat food because we’re hungry, not because it is in front of us.”
When it comes to dessert, flip the phrasing. Instead of making the sweet treat out to be this very special end-reward, say something like, “First we eat our meal, then we eat dessert,” she says. Simple but very effective.
“I just want you to be happy”
This is an unrealistic message. “We want our kids to experience the full spectrum of emotions and know how to deal with them,” Hemmen says. “No one is happy all the time, and kids who receive and believe this message feel as though they’re failing when they are anything other than happy.”
Instead, try talking to your child about specific emotions in the moment. For example, Hemmen says, consider taking this sort of tack: “It seems like you’re struggling and feeling down. I feel down sometimes, too. Can I help you come up with some ideas of what might make you feel good? Journaling or going for a walk work for me.”