6 Things You Should Say to Your Kids Regularly (and 4 to Avoid), According to Child Experts
Despite the fact that your kid claims not to hear your repeated bed-making requests, trust us—what you say to your children matters. Which is why we tapped family psychologists and counselors for the phrases that will help you in your quest to raise happy, healthy and well-adjusted humans.
Do Say: “I really like the way you cleaned up your toys.”
“Be descriptive with praise,” says parenting expert and psychologist Reena B. Patel. Why? The more specific you are, the more children understand about the positive behavior you want them to increase. “Positive reinforcement by definition is to specifically praise the behavior you want to see happen again in the future—this helps children feel good about the positive choices they made and motivates them to do it again.”
Don’t Say: “Great job acing that test—you’re so smart!”
Similar to the point above—the goal is to praise effort, not results. “It’s natural for kids to see outcomes without connecting the dots to the processes that brought them about,” Rachel Lugo, a licensed professional counselor at The Watson Institute in Pittsburgh, tells us. But as parents, it’s your role to show children that their actions matter and that the choices they make today will affect what happens tomorrow. “If your teen is at the top of their eighth-grade class, they may think their value lies in being the smartest kid in their class—but what happens when they go to the big high school and are no longer the brightest in their grade?” asks Lugo. Instead, she recommends saying something like, “Great job studying so hard.” By complimenting traits, you are helping them understand that they can’t control their circumstances, but they can control their actions.
Do Say: “That was really kind of you.”
Of course, you want your kid to do well academically but don’t forget the value of emotional intelligence, says psychotherapist Dr. Kathryn Smerling. “Parents need to model and show children the way in a mindful and emotionally intelligent manner.” For example, let’s say that you’re in the supermarket and someone at the deli counter gives your kid a cookie. Instead of urging your kid to say thank you, try something like, “Wasn’t that kind how the lady saw you and did something special for you?” Try to emphasize the emotional process instead of material achievements, suggests Smerling.
Don’t Say: “How was your day?”
Come on, you remember this one from back when you were a kid, right? “Questions that are too general, like ‘How was your day?’ often produce one-word answers that don’t give you any information about what your child is really feeling,” licensed professional counselor Kristin Wilson at Newport Academy tells us. Instead, ask specific yet open-ended questions like “How was your get-together with so-and-so?” or “What did you do in art class today?”
Do Say: “What do you think would be fair?”
Sure, you ask your kid whether she’d prefer OJ or milk with dinner but how often do you ask her opinion on other topics? “But this is really important—even when deciding on discipline,” says child and adolescent therapist Darby Fox. So the next time your daughter pulls her sister’s hair, ask her what she thinks a fair punishment would be. “It’s critical for getting their buy-in in situations and imparts the notion that you respect them,” adds Fox.
Don’t Say: “Did you have a good day?”
It seems innocent enough but leading questions like, “So, is everything fine?” or “Did you have a good day?” sends kids the message that you want everything to be OK. “Kids don’t want to disappoint or disturb their parents, so they’re more likely to say ‘sure’ or just nod in response and let you believe that everything’s fine—even if it isn’t,” says Wilson. What’s the fix? Again, try asking them something more specific like, “How did that presentation go today?”
Do Say: “It’s OK to not be OK.”
Your child’s playdate was cancelled and now he’s bummed about it. While your immediate reaction might be to reassure him that everything is alright, you can also let him know that it’s OK for him to be upset. “Being mad, sad, afraid, ashamed or hurt is all part of life,” says psychologist Dr. Sherrie Campbell. “Our children need to know that life is hard and that they don’t have to be perfect to be loved. This helps them to accept and express their vulnerabilities when they have them rather than repressing them and keeping them in.”
Don’t Say: “Deal with it!”
Instead, say “I hear you.” One of the challenges of parenthood is to acknowledge your kids’ emotions, without giving in to their tantrums, Lugo tells us. “I once knew a mom whose child would wake up hungry and grumpy from his nap and whine while she made him a snack. Instead of snapping at him to be quiet, she would say, ‘I know, buddy—it’s hard to wait,’ and then go about preparing his snack.” Whether a fussy toddler or an indignant teen, by acknowledging their feelings, parents build trust and also model empathy and respect.
Do Say: “I was wrong.”
It's important to admit when you are wrong but don’t stop there, says Dr. Campbell. Elaborate and offer to find a solution. Try something like, “I want you to know that I handled this situation wrong and I’m very sorry. How can we fix this?” When parents can admit to being wrong, it makes it more OK for kids to be wrong. “When we own our wrongs, we teach our kids by example to do the same. This helps develop humility.”
Do Say: “What do you think?”
You’re in the car, fielding your one thousandth question of the morning. And even though you really have no clue why the favorite garbage man didn’t show up today, don’t immediately respond with an “I don’t know” for every query. “Keep in mind that when a kid asks a question, it’s a clue into their thoughts and values,” says Lugo. “By turning a question around, you have the opportunity to get to know your child—and their inner workings—better. You just might be surprised!”