You'd be amazed how much power you wield with your words. Here are key phrases to remember--and some to write off.
5 Best Things to Say
1. "Please make a decision."
If you use this phrase when asking your child to do something--or stop doing something--you make it clear that she is responsible for her own actions. For example, you might tell her and her friend, "Please make a decision to play quietly or go outside." If they're still loud five minutes later, you can follow up with, "I see that you've decided to go outside." Not only does this help teach your child about cause and effect, but it takes you out of the bad-cop role; she will clearly understand that she's making a decision to choose a consequence.
2. "I love you, but I don't like that behavior."
If you have to discipline your child, you want to separate the deed from the doer--so he understands that behaving badly doesn't make him a bad person. Telling your child that you love him in the same sentence that you express disapproval also helps remind you that the goal of discipline is to teach your child what's appropriate, not to punish him--and you'll be much more likely to stay calm and not yell.
3. "I want you to help me solve my problem."
If your child is doing something that annoys you--humming during dinner or playing with his food--make it seem as if you're the one with the problem. Ask him to help you come up with a solution--perhaps he'll only hum while you're doing the dishes. This way, he'll feel as if his input is invited and respected, and he's less likely to see you as his adversary. If the only solution that will satisfy you is for him to stop the behavior entirely, you can brainstorm about how he can remember not to do it.
4. "What did you really want to tell her?"
When kids get mad, they may blurt out stinging words--such as "You're a jerk!" or "I hate you"--because that's all they can think of to say in the heat of the moment. But you can help your child dig deeper and figure out what exactly made her so furious. You might have to give her suggestions such as "Are you angry because your friend said something about you that she knew was private?" As your child learns to get more in touch with her feelings, she'll become better at articulating them with others, even when you're not around to help her.
5. "Different people have different needs."
When your child utters that familiar refrain "It's not fair!" you need to help him understand why everyone shouldn't in fact be treated equally. This statement explains what "fair" really means: "Everyone in the family gets what he needs when he needs it." If one of your children needs glasses, for example, you certainly wouldn't buy your other child a pair just to be fair. When one child outgrows her sneakers, it doesn't mean that both kids automatically get new ones. And if one kid has an ear infection, you don't give both children antibiotics!
5 Worst Things to Say
1. "Act your age."
If a 6-year-old cries because he can't have what he wants or a 4-year-old refuses to stop squirming in his car seat, he is acting his age. Although we're certainly delighted when our kids display more mature behavior, the truth is that it's still developmentally appropriate for them to be stubborn, needy, and self-centered. Lots of parents forget that fact--because, let's face it, childish behavior can be frustrating. However, when you tell your child to act his age, you're issuing a blanket criticism without acknowledging why he might have been behaving that way. You're really focusing on how his behavior affects you. Instead, try to tune in to his feelings, and preface your response with something empathetic like "You seem really angry" or "I know that it's sad when something like this happens."
2. "I was only teasing."
Joking with your child may seem like a harmless way to help him develop a sense of humor, but he's likely to believe put-downs such as "You'd probably forget your head if it weren't screwed on." Despite what many parents think, making fun of a child won't prepare him for being teased by other kids any more than hitting him will toughen him up to face a bully. Your job as a parent is to be loving and supportive, not cute or clever with insults that are disguised as humor. If you don't really mean it, don't say it.
3. "Why can't you be more like your sister (or brother)?"
Comparisons like this are a surefire way to make your child feel like a second-class citizen--and to fuel sibling rivalry. They're not an effective strategy to get her to do her homework as quickly as her sister does or shoot baskets like her brother; they'll only deflate a child's confidence. The more you tell her she's not good enough, the more likely she is to believe it. You need to accept your kids' strengths and weaknesses, and encourage each child in a way that focuses on his or her own behavior.
4. "Don't run or you'll fall."
Despite your best intentions--and the desire to protect your child--such warnings will actually make him more likely to trip. You're telling him that you expect him to fail--which is very discouraging for a child who's working very hard to become more independent. Instead, you might say, "Make sure your shoelaces are tied before you go outside." That way, you're talking about the shoelaces, not his clumsiness. In addition, the more you give warnings that don't turn out to be true ("Be careful or you'll spill your juice"), the more likely your child will be to disregard your advice because he thinks you don't know what you're talking about.
5. "What did I just tell you?"
You obviously know the answer. This sarcastic question is really a thinly veiled accusation--and if your child were to actually respond to a question such as "Where did you just drop your jacket?" she would end up sounding like a smart aleck. If you're irritated that your child hasn't done what you've asked, say so: "I'm frustrated that I have to repeat this three times, but I'm going to tell you once more--'Hang up your jacket.' "
Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the May 2003 issue of Parents magazine.