If you're like most modern parents, you've heard or read plenty about what you should not say to your kids. Is there a parent among us who does not know by heart the eminently sensible rule that we should criticize the behavior ("That was a bad thing to do") rather than the child ("You're a bad boy")?
Yet for all our heightened awareness of the power of our words to heal and to hurt, I'm always fascinated by how often, with the best possible intentions, parents make seemingly innocuous comments that in fact undermine their kids' confidence.
Many of these remarks are ones that all of us have uttered. Indeed, if you've heard such words coming from your own lips, don't berate yourself for inflicting irreparable harm on your son or daughter -- you haven't. But make a mental note that your child will be better off if you refrain from making such comments in the future.
Here, seven surprisingly destructive statements we make to our kids.
The Scenario: Your 6-year-old daughter returns from a party complaining about her mean friends. Or your 8-year-old son glumly reports that he didn't make the first-string soccer team.
The Wrong Words: "I know exactly how you feel."
The truth is: You don't. Despite your empathy, you are not your child and do not have access to his mind. Naturally, you want to be understanding and let him know that emotions such as anger and sadness are normal and okay. But this response is more likely to infuriate a child than calm him down because it suggests that the situation is somehow generic.
On top of that, there's the practical effect of telling a child you know just how he feels: He's likely to stop talking. And then you'll never learn what he finds so troubling about the situation. Quite possibly, you may make the wrong assumptions. You may think your daughter is in a funk because her friends made fun of her when she is actually irritated because she didn't like the game they picked.
Maybe you believe your son is miserable because he feels rejected when in fact he's a bit relieved not to be on the A team but hates being separated from his best friend.
The Winning Words: Ask some simple information-gathering questions: "Uh-huh . . . . Tell me what happened . . . . What happened after that?" Really listen as your child gets her story out so you'll know the details of what matters to her. See where the conversation leads. That's more likely to help your child feel understood than simply telling her you understand.
The Scenario: Your 4-year-old, just home from a playdate at Lindsay's house, announces, "I don't like Lindsay anymore."
The Wrong Words: "Yes, you do. Lindsay's a really nice girl."
Here's another example of good intentions gone awry. You don't want your youngster to be overcritical of others. And perhaps Lindsay genuinely is a sweet child. Or perhaps you and her mother are pals and it would be better for everyone if the girls got along.
But telling your child how she should feel is as detrimental as telling her you know how she feels. You're suggesting that her instinctive reactions to people are not reliable and that she should make herself feel something she doesn't. By denying the validity of her feelings, you're inhibiting her ability to develop and nurture her own relationships.
The Winning Words: Realize that if your child is unhappy with another child, there's a reason. Again, ask questions: "So you didn't have much fun today? What did Lindsay do to upset you? What would make things better next time?" In this way, you're encouraging your child, first, to trust her feelings; second, to try to understand and express why she's feeling that way; and, finally, to explore active solutions.
Maybe she, or the two of you talking together, can come up with ideas for repairing the relationship, and perhaps happier playdates will be in store. Then again, maybe they won't, in which case the most sensible course is to trust your child's instincts.
When it comes to getting along with others, these are the basic guidelines you want your child to follow: Figure out how you feel about the person, try to improve a disagreeable situation, and if that doesn't work, it's okay to let the friendship drop. If you manage to instill this lesson, you have given your child a gift to carry into all future relationships.
The Scenario: Seven-year-old Jack is telling his dad about the production of Peter Pan his class is doing. Jack desperately hopes to be cast as Captain Hook.
The Wrong Words: "Sure you'll get the part -- you're the best."
I witnessed this very exchange at a dinner party, and after Jack's father gave this response, Jack looked worried. Superlative statements that implicitly compare a child with his classmates or friends -- "You're the smartest," "the prettiest," or any other adjective ending in est -- can weigh heavily on a youngster. Such exaggerated claims create expectations and impose standards that a child may fear he can't live up to.
Besides, your child has been making comparisons of her own since preschool -- "That girl can run faster than I can," "My drawing is better than that boy's" -- and has already grasped the fact that she isn't the best at everything. Research over the past 20 years has convinced me that, far from bolstering a child's confidence, unrealistic praise from parents creates self-doubt. Encouraging realistic self- appraisal, on the other hand, protects children and promotes optimism.
The Winning Words: Stop making exaggerated statements that measure your child against his peers. Rather than tell your daughter she's the prettiest, say, "You look really nice today." Instead of "You're the funniest," say, "That joke is hilarious." Jack's dad could have given his son a vote of confidence without adding to the pressure by saying something like "You'd make a terrific Captain Hook. It'll really be great if you get the part."
The Scenario: Your 6-year-old, who despises cigarettes, asks you if you have ever smoked. When you answer no, he asks suspiciously, "Are you sure?"
The Wrong Words: "I would never lie to you."
Of course you want to be truthful with your youngster, and in this particular instance, you are. But saying that you'll never lie is a promise no parent can keep. If anything, making such an unequivocal pledge lays the groundwork for less trust. For one thing, sooner or later your child will catch you in a fib. For another, our children regularly hear us omit, gloss over, or otherwise distort facts with other people -- and they realize that if you can lie to Mrs. Jones next door or to a telemarketer who calls in the middle of dinner, you can very easily lie to them too.
The Winning Words: If you feel the need to let your child know he can trust what you say, assure him, "I'll always try to be honest with you." When he does observe you telling a white lie, explain that sometimes one says things that aren't entirely true out of care and concern for another person. You might say, "I know we didn't like Mrs. Jones's casserole, but I told her it was a big hit because it was nice of her to prepare it and I didn't want to hurt her feelings."
The Scenario: Millie, Anna, and Allison, ages 5, 6, and 8, are sisters. Their mother and father think of Millie as "the athletic one," Anna as "the artist," and Allison as "the scientist."
The Wrong Words: "You're our little athlete" (or "artist" or "scientist").
These loving, well-intentioned parents probably want to help each child feel important and special, not like just one of the pack. Perhaps by singling out each girl's talent, they hope to cut down on rivalry in a family of all girls, all close in age. But affixing a label to a child can send a negative message, compelling her to live up to that label. It also sends a "hands-off" message to her siblings, because it suggests that "art is your sister's territory, yours is sports, and you mustn't encroach." So in the guise of encouraging her talents, you inadvertently discourage your child from stretching her wings in other directions.
And perhaps that is exactly what she wants to do. Maybe "the little scientist" really longs to be a dancer. Maybe "the family clown" would like nothing better than to be admired as an ace student.
The Winning Words: Applauding what your child is good at is supportive and kind, but don't name her as one thing or another. Draw attention to the endeavor itself rather than pronounce her a master of it. Say, "Your poem is wonderful" rather than "You're a wonderful poet," or "You sang that song beautifully" rather than "You're a beautiful singer." It's a subtle distinction but one that takes the pressure off your child.
The Scenario: Five-year-old Katy comes home upset because a classmate has said her ears stick out.
The Wrong Words: "Your ears do not stick out. Besides, Mommy loves you just the way you are."
With this response, Katy's mother contradicts the observation, then essentially confirms it by assuring her daughter that she loves her anyway. She hopes to comfort her child and help her feel comfortable with her body. But telling a child that what she suspects is true isn't will only backfire.
In our looks-obsessed culture, children as young as 2 or 3 start to become acutely aware of how they measure up to some ideal standard of beauty. And by the time they're 5 or 6, kids routinely complain about specific parts of themselves -- "My legs are too fat" or "I'm too short." To brush off her complaints with "You're beautiful the way you are" may cause her to doubt her own perceptions -- after all, she sees the way people are "supposed" to look. She may also conclude that you just don't understand how upset she is. She's apt to clam up and hold in her unhappy feelings. And the last thing you want is for the lines of communication to break down.
The Winning Words: If your child is finding fault with some part of his appearance, try to ascertain whether he's comparing himself with someone. Then, having opened the discussion, the two of you can decide if anything can be done. For example, 8-year-old Mark complained that he looked "all fat and mushy." His mom asked, "Is there someone who you think looks great?" It turned out that Mark admired his friend James, a wiry soccer player.
After she pointed out that good-looking people come in all shapes and sizes, Mark's mother said, "You could look more like James if you wanted to." With her encouragement, Mark enrolled in a junior swim program. After a few months of swimming twice a week, he was noticeably leaner and feeling much better about his appearance. Taking a specific action can make a child feel less helpless.
Sometimes, of course, there is no way to fix a part of a child's apperance that distresses her. In that case, simply try to understand her feelings, but don't try to talk her out of them.
The Scenario: Jill and Ed had a terrible argument that was overheard by their 7-year-old son, Jeremy.
The Wrong Words: "I want to let you know what Daddy and I were fighting about this morning."
In our current climate of openness, we sometimes let our kids in on too much. Many well-meaning parents believe that their child will be less concerned if he understands what an argument was all about. In addition, we've picked up the misguided notion that talking to children about our own problems teaches them something important about relationships.
True, hearing you and your partner engaged in verbal battle can upset your child. But full disclosure -- unloading the nitty-gritty of a marital spat -- creates needless anxiety. Even very young children are aware of separation and divorce. They sense -- from what they see in movies, on TV, and among their friends -- that domestic life can be very fragile. You and your spouse may know that your fight is a mere blip in a solid marriage, but a child is apt to jump to a worst--case scenario: Her family is falling apart.
The Winning Words: After hearing her parents fight, a child needs to know, first, that she didn't cause it, and second, that Mom and Dad are being nice to each other again.
Acknowledge that something unpleasant did, in fact, go on. Say, "Daddy and I were really mad at each other! But it certainly wasn't anything you did." Then give your spouse a hug or engage in some good-humored joshing in your child's presence. She'll be relieved and happy to see that tranquility has been restored.
Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the October 2000 issue of Parents magazine.