7 Things You Should Never Say to a Toddler
If reading this headline alone sends you into a guilt-ridden shame spiral and makes you reach for the "she slaps her forehead" emoji, know this: Parenting is basically 21-plus years of screwing up and then trying to do better tomorrow. One expert's motto? “It’s about progress, not perfection.” So the next time you feel one of these phrases on the tip of your tongue, read this cheat sheet for healthier substitutes. (If only we could offer the same thing for raw brownie mix.)
What you say: “You have to share!”
What they hear: “I’m taking your newest favorite thing away from you and you are powerless to stop me.”
Try this instead: “Let’s take turns. You play with the Octonaut for one minute, and then your friend can play with it for one minute. And then he’ll give it back!” Or, you know what? Don’t. Help your kid come up with ways to politely deflect the request to share, and move along.
What you say: “You’re ok! That didn’t hurt!” (After a fall)
What they hear: A confusing message, because—at this particular, fleeting moment—they’re actually sort of not OK and maybe it did kinda hurt. Little kids need to feel understood and heard, just like grown-ups. When you acknowledge and validate their feelings, instead of "distorting" them, they feel secure. Telling them the pain or fear they’re feeling isn’t real won’t take it away any faster.
Try this instead: “Ooh, you fell. Are you hurt? Was it scary? You seem like you’re better now, though. Do you want to try again?”
What you say: “Great job! You’re such a good boy!”
What they hear: Crickets….because they’re likely tuning you out.
Try this instead: Positive reinforcement is an excellent behavior-management tool. But the trick is to be authentic and specific with your praise: “This painting is awesome! I love how you made the sky purple, just like in The Lorax.” Or "Great job cleaning up your blocks. Now that you've worked so hard to clear some space on the rug, we can work on your puzzle together." Pro tip: Celebrate the behavior, not the child. This way, kids connect pride with effort, and may sidestep the trap of looking to outside sources (primarily, you) for their own self-worth.
WHAT YOU SAY: “WHY ARE YOU ALWAYS...?”
What they hear: Small children interpret things literally, especially the things their parents tell them. So they take statements like "Why are you always so mean to your sister in the bath?" or "You're so shy at birthday parities" as gospel and believe “This is who I am [mean, shy].” Labels stick.
Try this instead: “I see that you get frustrated with your sister in the bath. But I can’t let you hit her. Next time she bothers you, I expect you to use your words, and we’ll find a way to work it out together.” Then help your child come up with solutions. (We can take separate baths. Tonight I get to sit under the faucet, and tomorrow night she can, etc.) Or, “Sometimes birthday parties feel too loud for everyone. Would you like to take a break outside with me for a few minutes and then come back in?”
What you say: “Don’t cry” or “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
What they hear: “It’s not OK to be sad or scared. It’s bad that I feel this way.”
Try this instead: “I see it hurt your feelings when that boy said he didn’t want to play with you. That happens to everyone sometimes. Is there something else you’d like to do instead?” Or “I understand you’re afraid to go into your room with the lights off. Let me show you how to turn on the hall light so you can always see where you’re going.”
What you say: “I’m calling Daddy!”
What they hear: “Mom’s not really in charge around here” and/or “Daddy is the angry/mean/serious/scary one who punishes me.”
Try this instead: Once you’ve gotten the situation safely under control (i.e., the wall is still covered in nail polish, but the dog has been captured and the stove is no longer turned on), take steps to keep your cool. Then, in a calm moment, explain to your child what rule has been broken and what you expect from her going forward. It also never hurts to remind kids (and yourself): “When we make mistakes, we learn from them and that helps our brains grow.”
What you say: “Ok, bye!” (and then pretend to walk away when your kid won’t leave the playground)
What they hear: I’m abandoning you.
Try this instead.