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Five things to stop saying to our children


Every now and then, I catch myself saying things to my children that my mother said to me when I was a child. I immediately cringe because I sound just like my mother!

I’ve been sitting here for five minutes, trying to remember some humorous examples to share with you but, you know what? I can’t think of any right now.

That’s because they’re all recorded into my subconscious and, as these things do, they escape through my mouth when I least expect it.

But there are also other phrases stored in my subconscious that aren’t so innocuous. They’re phrases we parents use reasonably frequently to “guide” our children.

They’re words that have littered the parenting language we’ve listened to all of our lives, firstly as children and now as parents. Even parent characters in movies and sitcoms say them.

When I stopped to think about them and the negative impact they may be having on our children, I realised we need to erase these phrases from our vocabulary and find different language that says what we need to without hurting our children.

So, what are these things we need to stop saying to our children?

And what could we say instead?

Hurtful things to stop saying to our kids


One  ‘Be nice’

Example: When our child is behaving in an unkind or socially unacceptable way, such as not sharing a toy or shouting their displeasure, we often say things like, “be nice”, “that’s not nice” and “speak nicely please”.

The problem: There’s a sickly-sweet feeling about the word “nice”. Is that the message we want to be giving our child— just be sweet-as-pie? Telling our child to be nice is setting them up to become a people-pleaser (definitely not something we want to burden them with).

It tells them that they should censor what they think and feel so that no one else is upset. It tells them that their thoughts and feelings aren’t as important as others’.

An alternative: Instead of telling our child to be “nice”, we can talk about being “kind” and “respectful”. Kindness and respect allow for honesty and truth, even when the other person may not like it.

As I tell my children, “there’s a kind and respectful way to say everything”. While they’re young, we can help them build the language skills to express themselves in this way.

Two  ‘Be brave’

Example: When our child is standing face to face with fear, perhaps trying to muster the courage to go down a steep slide at the playground, we might try to encourage them by telling them to “be brave”.

The Problem: These words are of no help when facing fears. No one can instantly turn off their fear and find a well of courage! By telling our child to “be brave” we communicate that their feelings are a problem and they should hide them.

Told to be brave often enough, they may learn that they can’t come to us with their fears or show their vulnerabilities. As adults, they may become self-protective and difficult to connect with.

An alternative: The most helpful thing we can do when our child is in fear is to be with them and their feelings, assuring them of our support.

We can encourage them that they can do scary things instead of telling them that they shouldn’t feel scared. We can also make it ok for them to choose not to go down the slide this time.

Three    ‘Say sorry’

Example: When our child has hurt another, either physically or with their words, one of our first responses is usually to prompt them with “say sorry”. We do this because we feel that we should be seen to be doing something about our child’s behaviour.

The problem: It’s not an apology if our child doesn’t mean it. When instructed to apologise, our child may do so to avoid our disapproval or punishment, not because they want to.

If they’re prompted to apologise before having the chance to feel their remorse or caring for the other person, they won’t learn to apologise out of sincerity and of their own accord. Like us, they need time for their feelings to settle before they can offer a genuine apology.

An alternative: Give our child time to calm down and reflect on the situation in their own way and time, and be there with our support.

We know ourselves that, when we’ve made a mistake, we feel vulnerable and unsure of ourselves and we need non-judgmental support. Once they’re ready to talk it through, we can ask our child, “what do you want to do about it now?”

Let them decide how they want to make amends.

Four    ‘Hurry up’

Example: When trying to get our child organised and into the car to go to school, we tell them to “hurry up”, often several times (at least, I do — this is the one I’m most guilty of!)

The problem: We hurry our children along when we’re genuinely rushing or, sometimes, when we’re just feeling impatient. We tell our child to “hurry up” to put the pressure on them and get them moving — then wonder why they’re being so irritable and grumpy! We’re stressing them out!

An alternative: It’s up to us to manage our family’s time so that it doesn’t become our child’s problem.

Firstly, we can make sure our families aren’t over-committed, trying to squeeze too much into a day.

Secondly, we can allow more time for things to be done so that no one feels under pressure from the tick of the clock. For example, I tell my boys to pack their school bags and get in the car for school just as I head outside to hang the washing.

This allows them plenty of time to get in the car before I return from the washing line, sparing us all the hurry-ups.

Five    ‘You don’t deserve …’

Example: “That’s it! We’re not going out for dinner now. The way you’ve been behaving today, you don’t deserve a treat!” Sound familiar?

The problem: The word “deserve” is too closely tied to self-worth when used in this way. I firmly believe we should never put our child’s worth into question.

The way I see it, we’re all inherently worthy, born worthy and our worth isn’t something that changes. So-called “good behaviour” can’t increase our child’s worth and “bad behaviour” can’t reduce it. Our child needs to know that their worth is certain and stable.

An alternative: I now rarely use the word “deserve” in a parenting context. In the context of responding to our child’s difficult behaviour, we can lean on natural and logical consequences rather than putting them down.

We might say, “I need to know that you’re going to listen when I take you to the restaurant tonight. You’ll have to show me you’re going to be a listener. If you can’t, we’ll eat at home instead”.

In conclusion

We’re not terrible parents because we’ve been saying these things to our children. These words have seeped into our subconscious through no fault of our own.

Now that we’ve acknowledged how they can undermine our children, though, we can choose to change our habits and make kinder, more effective language our new default.

All of my suggestions above can be adapted for your child’s age and the situations you find yourself in. You might even come up with better alternatives of your own.

My suggestion is to work on eliminating one phrase at a time and to have patience with yourself. Habits can be slow to shift but these are ones worth changing.

The way we speak to our children becomes the way they speak to themselves.

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More information:

You can find out more about Julie on her blog Untangling Motherhood


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