Anyone raising kids during a pandemic could undoubtedly use some good advice. But here’s the catch: Our brains are too foggy (time-blur, anyone?) to read an entire parenting book or to put intensive energy toward changing things about ourselves—like, oh, the bedrock relationship patterns that took root during our own childhoods.
Enter the genius of Dr. Robyn Koslowitz, PhD. We were so inspired by her Psychology Today article, The 3-Letter Words Child Psychologists Love, we called her for more tips on how we can make small yet profound adjustments to the way we speak to—and think about—our kids. “Sometimes, parenting is so hard,” she writes, “we forget that there are simple changes we can make that can help. Language has a lot of power.” It turns out that using—and avoiding—certain words can reframe the way we relate to our littlest loved ones. Brevity is the soul of wit? It may also be at the heart of better relationships. Happier families, right this way.
Two Words Parents Should Embrace
Using the word “AND” when we speak with our kids reminds us that “Two seemingly contradictory things can be true at the same time,” writes Koslowitz. (Check out her podcast on post-traumatic parenting.) Using ‘AND’ with our kids “helps us convey our unshakable love and belief in them,” even when it is necessary to demonstrate our disapproval of their actions. You are a loving, gentle and kind person AND you need to learn we can’t ride on the dog. You are a hard-working, responsible student AND we need to come up with a system that helps you remember to turn in your homework. You are a loving sister AND you need to practice your tolerance skills. “After all, our kids can be the most exasperating creatures in the world AND we love them more than we can express, right?” writes Koslowitz. The goal is to make sure our kids know, “I love you just the way you are AND there are always skills you can learn, competencies you can master, and emotions you can learn to regulate better. The one does not cancel out the other.”
We have to remember, writes Koslowitz, that our children “are not finished products. Instead, they’re in the pre-change state.” Children don’t change their behavior unless and until they are developmentally ready, or otherwise motivated, to do so. We can’t predict when or how exactly this will happen. We can’t always envision the event, friendship or new environment that will catalyze a change in our kids. But that doesn’t mean change isn’t coming.
“I remember a patient of mine who simply could not learn time management,” Koslowitz writes. “Her mother tried all sorts of charts and behavioral systems, but nothing stuck. Until she auditioned for the school band and was accepted. Band practice was before school, which meant catching the early bus. She never missed the bus once! A combination of maturity and motivation got her to a place that no amount of behavior modification or parental encouragement could. She wasn’t incapable of change; she was just in the pre-change state.” The word “PRE” reminds us to have faith in our kids’ growing-up process. Koslowitz mentions research on the “End of History Illusion.” This occurs when “We think things will always be as they are now, and they will never change. We assume that whatever version we are of ourselves is how we will always be. With kids, we do that also. We don’t really see the future. As parents, we’re supposed to hold out hope, right? But [instead we think], ‘Oh my Gosh, she’s so irresponsible. We’re going to have to manage her irresponsibility.’ And well, no, it’s that she’s pre-responsible.
Want more proof? Ask yourself, parents: Is your favorite band or song today the same as it was in middle school? An absurd notion, right? (Unless you are still obsessed with “I’ll Make Love to You” by Boyz II Men…?) Remember your kids are always changing; usually for the better.
Two Words Parents Should Avoid
In her psychology practice, Koslowitz sees kids with social anxiety being told to JUST talk to another child at a party, kids with OCD to JUST touch the germy doorknob, kids with depression to JUST get out of bed and go to school and kids with self-regulation challenges to JUST not get so angry.
“I have a saying: ‘There’s no justice in just.’ Also: ‘Just is a four-letter word,’” she says. “We never say the word ‘JUST.’ It would be like telling me, ‘JUST dunk a basketball.’ I’m 5 feet tall. I probably could. I bet if I hired the best coaches and I did nothing but practice basketball every day, all day, and did nothing else, I probably could develop that skill with an inordinate amount of effort. But then there would be no ‘just’ there.”
When it comes to remote learning, for example, saying, “Just sit down and do your work!” may not get you far with a young child. Instead, “Practice patience and say, ‘Remember when we spoke about your time? And how you value getting the work done so that then we can play? If we start the work now, then we can get to the play part faster.”
Ask questions to figure out how to get your kid to buy in to whatever the task is. “It’s about asking, ‘What do you value, kid? What do you enjoy doing?’ But instead of saying, ‘Just start!’ try, ‘It sounds like you’re having a hard time starting. Let’s start together.” Rather than tell your child what they’re not going to do (You’re not going to make it to soccer on time if you don’t get your cleats on now!), tell them what they are going to do (If you get your cleats on now, we won’t be rushed, and then you get to pick the music in the car!).
Think of ‘BUT’ as the negative flipside of ‘AND.’ Koslowitz offers an example: ‘He’s a wonderful child, AND he needs to work on his anger management skills.’ If you instead say, ‘He’s a wonderful boy, BUT he needs to work on his anger management skills,’ then the ‘BUT’ negates whatever came before it. “‘You’re a wonderful boy BUT you need to work on your anger’ means you’re not really a very wonderful boy,” she explains. To a child, this kind of statement means their value to you is conditional: You will be a wonderful boy but only when you learn to control your anger. If we make a conscious effort to switch BUT to AND, we may see progress toward more positive parenting.