I grew up hearing my mother say in Italian, "Soltanto la tua madre ti dir? di mettere il rossetto in modo che tu possa essere pi? graziosa di lei" -- which roughly translates into: "Only your mother will tell you to go put lipstick on so that you can be prettier than she is." This was her way of saying, "Trust me. I know what's best for you." Other lasting advice: "Wipe front to back" and, whenever she was at a loss for words, "Get a grip." "Wipe front to back" was obvious, but "get a grip?" Get a grip on what? I was a literal kid, and her words didn't calm me down -- they just made me hold on to banisters very tightly.
My misunderstanding of my mother's advice made me wonder how much my own kids, 8-year-old Conrad and 5-year-old Dashiell, understand when I dole out my precious words of wisdom. Do I need to tweak my momisms so that my kids know what I'm talking about and are actually able to follow through on what I have to say? "The most effective way to speak to a kid is to use simple words and sentences that allow you to accept his feelings but follow through on your rules," says Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. And don't undermine yourself either. Dr. Mogel cautions against adding qualifiers such as "okay?" at the end of your request. If you give a child the opportunity to say no, she may use her veto power whenever she can -- and it will seem as though you're not fully committed to what you're saying. With these basics in mind, we rounded up the best phrases all moms should repeat after us -- and then to their kids.
1. "I need to think about that."
Moms often suffer from an instant-response reflex. "Many of us believe we have to think on our feet, come up with an answer immediately, and reach consensus with a 4-year-old," says Dr. Mogel. But blurting out the first thing that comes to your mind can lead to regret and frustration for both you and your child. Telling her, "I need to think about that" gives you authority, buys you time, and also introduces the idea that people think about things and weigh the pros and cons before coming up with a response, says Dr. Mogel. It can also be habit-forming. If your child hears you say, "I'm going to have to think about that" often, she will become comfortable taking her time when making her own decisions, which can have long-term benefits. By the time she reaches middle school, she will be so used to the idea of thinking before she speaks that she'll be more likely to say, "I'm going to have to think about that"' to her friends -- increasing her odds of avoiding spontaneous participation in ill-advised, illegal, or just plain stupid behavior.
2. "How does that make you feel?"
There's been a lot of talk lately about how parents shower their kids with too much praise. I'm as guilty as the next mom: "Awesome lunch-eating!" "Amazing shoe-tying!" Instead of this over-the-top enthusiasm, Dr. Mogel suggests asking "How does that make you feel?" when kids do something praiseworthy. "Even though it's a bit passive-aggressive (kids know when you're trying to get them to say what you want to hear), what's nice about this response is that it gives you a break from jumping up and down with praise and encourages your child to get in touch with what he finds satisfying, rather than thinking only about the end result," says Dr. Mogel. It also works in less-than-feel-good situations. For instance, when Conrad forgot his backpack two days in a row, I tried hard to hide my annoyance and instead asked him about his feelings. "Messy and mad" was his response. My question made him pause and reflect on how frustrated he was, something he probably wouldn't have done if I hadn't asked him. The next morning as he headed out the door, he turned to me and said matter-of-factly, "I'm not forgetting my backpack today."
Use this when your kid presents you with a problem or if she's done something she knows will get her in trouble (like knocking over the container of milk after you've warned her to move it away from the table's edge). Simply saying "Wow" lets her know that you're acknowledging what just happened, but you're not committing to a response right away. This will give you a moment to put the situation in perspective and figure out how you want to handle it. "I especially like this one because it counters our whole culture of giving instant, urgent responses," explains Dr. Mogel. Bonus: You can use this for years to come, she says, but you may want to switch "wow" to "whoa" by the time she hits her teens.
4. "Let's see if we can find something good in this."
A rainy day. A dropped Lego masterpiece, its pieces scattered all over the floor. Or horror of all horrors: a canceled playdate. These are all depressing situations for a kid. The secret to helping your child manage disappointment is to not rush in and rescue him from feeling bad. Instead, you want to help him flex his coping skills by letting him be upset. Of course, it's not easy to listen to your child go on a tear about how he'll never have another playdate as long as he lives. But after he's said his piece, sit down next to him and say, "Let's find the good part." Be prepared for some push-back; after all, it's hard to see the upside of not having anyone to play with. But stick with it by asking him to think about what's still positive (let's have an indoor jump-rope contest) and what can still work (we can bake banana bread even though Oliver isn't coming over) in spite of the annoying stuff. You'll help your child learn to adapt and manage with what he has.
5. "Listen to your body."
Many moms are more in touch with their kid's body than with their own. We know how long they've slept and the last time they ate and pooped -- even when they're 8 years old, not 8 months old. However, if you habitually manage your child's physical needs, she'll figure out that she doesn't have to and she won't learn to be self-regulating, says Dr. Mogel. When she says, "I have a stomachache," don't rush to share your own conclusion (like "Of course you do. You haven't gone potty/eaten/eaten anything but PB&J for 48 hours"). Instead, help her go through a scan of likely causes. Eventually, if she learns to pay attention to her body, she may be able to recognize that the butterflies in her tummy are different from hunger pains. Or that she can't fall asleep because her mind is racing. Once your child can identify what is going on with her body, she'll be able to respond in the appropriate way: She'll know when to stop playing and get up and go to the bathroom, or recognize when she's had enough to eat. And when she comes downstairs and says she can't sleep, at least she'll be able to tell you why.
6. "Take a breath."
We all need to slow down, but in our rush to get ready for the bus, soccer practice, or doctor appointments, it's easy to forget how. Saying this puts an end to the urgency that so many kids feel during those transitional moments between activities, and it reminds you to take a breath too. "It's the equivalent of putting the oxygen mask on yourself first and then on your child," Dr. Mogel says. Kids mirror our moods, and if you can stop and call a time-out to breathe, you will be teaching your child how to slow down and manage stressful situations. It resets the tone of your day and gives you and your kid permission to be okay with right where you are -- and maybe even to see how funny it is that you can find only one shoe. The best way to make sure your words have a calming effect is to bend down to your child's eye level, hold his hands in yours, and take a few deep breaths. When you're done, you'll also feel more clearheaded and connected, and be far more likely to locate that other shoe.
7. "Would you like a do-over?"
When your child balks at eating her broccoli, refuses to share her Littlest Pet Shop toy with her pal, or whines that you need to take her to the park right now, this is a good way to gently remind her how you expect her to behave. The beauty of the phrase is that you're letting her know her behavior is unacceptable without embarrassing or scolding her. It works whether you're in the privacy of your own home or in line for a table at a crowded restaurant, because it's friendly and nonthreatening. Changing the phrase to "Let's have a do-over" makes it even more effective because it's nonnegotiable. You're both going to reenact a moment together, and she can't say no. Plus, it takes her out of the hot seat and puts the two of you on the same team. When she feels you are her ally, she'll be more willing to work with you.
8. "That's a great idea."
Being a cheerleader for your child's big and small ideas will help him realize that he can effectively solve his own problems. Whether you have a 2-year-old figuring out what he wants to wear, a 6-year-old deciding how to spend an afternoon, or an 8-year-old debating about what story he is going to write, saying this will tell him that whatever scenario he just cooked up is worthy and that he has the brains and ability to see it through.
Talk This Way
Are you tired of being totally tuned out or arguing over every little thing? Dr. Wendy Mogel offers fresh ways to share good news and bad.
10 Simple and Effective Ways to Say No
"That is not the issue."
"No, and that is final."
"I'm not ready for that."
"I've given it some more thought, and I am going to say no."
"I remember saying no about this."
"I'm not going to change my mind about this."
"Ixnay, Nyet, Nein" (or another language of your choosing)
10 Fun and Encouraging Ways to Say Yes
"Of course! We can/will/should"
"I'd be glad to help."
"That sounds like fun."
"I'd be happy to."
Originally published in the July 2012 issue of Parents magazine.