3 Phrases a Therapist Is Begging You to Stop Saying to Your Youngest Child

Are you over-coddling or under-attentive?

The youngest child and oldest child in back of a car.
AleksandarNakic/Getty Images

Depending on where you fall in the sibling lineup—or lack thereof (only child much?)—you’re probably familiar with the stereotypes attached to each position: Oldest children are leaders; middle children are starved for attention; and youngest children are babies. And sure, there’s gotta be some truth to personality traits and birth order, but, as clinical psychologist Dr. Mary Ann Little tells me, it’s less nature and more nurture: “Both theory and research demonstrate that parents treat first, middle and last-born children differently, and those parental reactions have consequences—both to the good and not-so-good.” So, if you want to avoid falling into the typical youngest child trap, Dr. Little advises taking the middle ground—avoid being overly coddling or under-attentive. As a middle child myself, I can certainly appreciate the middle ground. For more specifics, here are three key phrases Dr. Little says to stop saying to your youngest.

Meet the Expert

Mary Ann Little, PhD, is a clinical psychologist who has been in private practice for over four decades. She is the author of several books on parenting including Loving Your Children Better: Matching Parenting Styles to the Age and Stage of Your Children; the Competent Kids Series, a set of seven book and her most recent being Childhood Narcissism: Strategies to Raise Unselfish, Unentitled, and Empathetic Children.

3 Phrases to Stop Saying to Youngest Children

1. “Baby” 

  • The Problem: When used in explicit reference to birth order, parents can pigeonhole their child by assigning them a role that has certain connotations within their family.
  • Examples: “Oh, but you’re the baby.” “He’s the baby of the family.” “My baby’s going off to middle school!”

Is calling your kid “baby” the problem? No. But consistently using language that solidifies the status of your child as the baby of the family hammers home the idea that they are viewed as, well, a baby. This means they don’t have the same responsibilities or expectations as older children. “The child’s self-concept is critical, and how parents view them is key. Being seen as lacking in competence is not good for children. We do not want them to perceive themselves as defective, deficient, or dependent,” says Dr. Little. 

What to Say Instead: “You’re my baby, but you’re not a baby.” “I have three babies, and you are all your own individual people.” “This is Madison. She’s 6 and she loves to make jewelry.”

2. “Never Mind”

  • The Problem: Parents risk being too permissive and not providing enough rules and discipline.
  • Examples: “Never mind what I said. Just let your brother do that for you.” “Never mind. There's not enough time for you to get that done.” “Oh, never mind. You're going to get mad if I ask you to make your bed.” 

So you’ve assessed the situation and changed your mind—your youngest will tantrum if you ask them to make their bed. But if you tell them “never mind, I’ll just do it myself” enough times, your child learns that you don’t have big expectations of them. “It’s common to see parents change their minds in these sorts of situations, because rearranging family plans is often stressful,” shares Dr. Little. But avoiding age-appropriate expectations and/or giving in to a child’s demands creates its own set of problems. “Children need to have demands placed on them and must experience the frustration that fuels mastery. Limiting expectations interferes with the building of frustration tolerance and healthy development.” Long story short, you can’t build resilience if you don’t give them anything to work the muscle. 

What to Say Instead: “Let me know if you need some help.” “I asked you to take the trash cans out because I know you can do it.” “You can be upset that I asked you to make your bed, but you still have to make your bed.”

3. “It’s No Big Deal”

  • The Problem: Parents risk being not sufficiently attentive to or excited with their child’s accomplishments.
  • Examples: “Of course you can swim. Your siblings all did it too.” “You’ve learned how to read a little book.” “You’re running faster, but not as fast as your sister.” 

With lastborn children, parents tend to have a more laissez-faire attitude about child rearing, says Dr. Little.  So even though older children can often be parentified, they also benefit from undivided attention, which includes basking in the light of their parents’ extreme delight with childhood developments, be it learning to walk or eating solids. “Lastborns often miss out on this. As parents react with less spontaneous joy and wonder, it might seem to the lastborn that none of their accomplishments matter,” shares Dr. Little. Qualifying and/or comparing accomplishments and/or struggles can make a child feel less-than and stoke sibling rivalry for the rest of their lives. 

What to Say Instead: “It’s OK if you don’t want to jump in yet, you can swim when you’re ready.” “That’s the first book you read on your own!” “That was so fast!” 


Executive Editor, Frazzled Mom, Bravo-Holic

Dara Katz is PureWow's Executive Editor, focusing on relationships, sex, horoscopes, travel and pets. Dara joined PureWow in 2016 and now dresses so much better. A lifestyle...