Unfortunately, kids don’t come with a manual. (Imagine how great that would be!) Parents make mistakes all the time, and that’s OK. One of the hardest things to learn as a parent is how to talk to kids. It’s easy to say something that gives them the wrong message or idea — you may not even realize it. But we’re here to help.
Read on for a list of things you should never say to your child. Share them with your nanny or babysitter so they know how to talk to your kids, too.
1. “I’m proud of you”
Carl Pickhardt, a psychologist and author of “Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence,” says that you shouldn’t simply give your child a blanket statement of encouragement because: “Now the child feels responsible for parental pride (‘How you acted makes me proud to be me.’)”
Try this instead: “It’s better for the parent to place credit where it belongs: ‘Good for you,'” he suggests.
2. “Good job!”
Love something your child did? “It is far more helpful in terms of encouragement and building self-esteem if you focus on how your child achieved whatever he or she accomplished,” says social psychologist and bestselling author Susan Newman. “‘Great job, what a smart boy, you are wonderful’ and the like become white noise after a while.”
Try this instead:
- Your child brought home good grades: “You got all As — you must have worked really hard.”
- Your child’s team won: “I liked the way you passed the ball so your teammate could score.”
- Your child drew a nice picture: “What made you choose those pretty colors?” or “How did you figure out the design/shape?”
“Parental reactions like the above get a child thinking about the process and working toward a goal,” adds Newman.
3. “You should set a good example for your brother”
Older siblings can act out, perhaps out of jealousy due to the extra attention a younger sibling may be receiving.
Try this instead: To curb this, Dr. Katharine Kersey, professor of early childhood education at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, suggests praising the older sibling and noting how important he is in his sibling’s life: “Your brother looks up to you; you’re such a good role model!”
4. “Wait until your father/mother gets home”
Why are you passing the buck? This may be a familiar refrain in lots of households, but parents are equals and one shouldn’t be designated the disciplinarian or used as a threat. Stick together as a united team.
Try this instead: “You’re grounded for one week because you said a bad word.” Don’t postpone penalties for a child’s actions — handle them right then and there.
5. “I will never forgive you”
It’s happened to even the best of us — we react quickly when a child does something unthinkable. Saying something like this could be truly damaging to a child. Pickhardt says, “Now the child feels that whatever has been done will forever be remembered against them.”
Try this instead: “It’s better for the parent to say: ‘What you did was harmful, but we will find a way to leave this behind us and carry on,'” he recommends. In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to say something rash. Take a deep breath and wait until you calm down before you speak.
6. “I’m ashamed of you”
Pickhardt and Kersey both agree on the negativity of this phrase. Pickhardt says that using this phrase may “make the child feel like a disgrace in the family.”
Try this instead: “It’s better for the parent to say: ‘Although I feel badly about what you did, as always I love who you are,” Kersey suggests.
7. “Don’t worry, everything will be OK”
Are your kids concerned about a tragic story they saw on the news? Don’t push aside their concerns — address them head-on. Newman notes it’s “better to explain how you as a parent will do everything you can to keep your child safe.”
Try this instead: “Mom and Dad are always nearby and we’re going to set up a plan in case of emergency.”
8. “Here, I’ll do it”
It’s easy to get frustrated when your child can’t quite finish a project or has trouble completing homework.
Try this instead: Kersey aims for a more collaborative approach, suggesting that it would be best to say, “Let’s do it together!”
9. “Don’t cry”
It’s important to encourage kids to express their emotions — not bottle them up. Help them recognize their feelings and deal with them openly and honestly. Even if the noise is driving you nuts, realize that your kids are hurting and need to be comforted.
Try this instead: “I know you’re sad that Katie moved away. It’s OK to cry — everyone needs to let out emotions sometimes. Let me give you a hug.”
10. “Thinking about sex is bad at your age”
The inevitable question of where babies come from is something parents worry about facing constantly. Don’t brush this question off or say “We’ll talk about sex when you’re older.”
Try this instead: Pickhardt suggests saying, “Curiosity about sex is normal and I will answer any questions that you have.” He adds that it’s important for you to be ready to speak honestly and age-appropriately with your children.
11. If you eat all your dinner, you can have dessert”
We’ve all heard this one before — dessert is so good, even adults sometimes want to jump the main course and head straight for the cake and cookies. But don’t use dessert as a reward — it sends a bad message that other types of food aren’t as good.
Try this instead: “We need to eat healthy so our bodies will be strong. Your tummy will tell you when you are full. Would you rather have apples or cherries for dessert,” Kersey suggests.
12. “If you don’t clean your room, you’re going to be in big trouble”
This one is very similar to the above, with the typical “if … then” scenario, although the threatening aspect of this phrase makes it more volatile. Avoid phrasing things as threats like, “I’ll give you something to cry about.”
Try this instead: “When your room is clean, then you may go out to play,” Kersey says, emphasizing that you should turn it into a positive scenario.
13. “If you take good care of yourself, you’ll stay healthy”
Especially if you have older individuals in the family who are ailing, this can draw many questions from concerned youngsters.
Try this instead: “Even healthy people get sick, but health does help people get better after falling sick,” Pickhardt says.
14. “Family finances aren’t your business”
Concerns about family finances are constant in many families, and if an argument between parents ensues, it can be easy for children to overhear and become concerned.
Try this instead: “Finances are how we make and manage money, and when you like, we will teach you what we know,” Pickhardt offers.
15. “I’m disappointed in you”
Did your child fail an exam? Pickhardt says that saying something so blunt could leave the child feeling “like he/she has lost loving standing in parental eyes.”
Try this instead: “I’m surprised and was not expecting this to occur,” he suggests.
16. “This is terrible, the worst”
When things go wrong in life, your constant repetition of a phrase like this could set your kids on edge and cause even more concerns. “By saying fearful and emotional words over and over, very young children may believe that the event you reference has happened many times,” says Newman.
Try this instead: “I’m having a hard time believing such a tragedy, but we’ll talk about it if you’d like to,” she suggests instead.
17. “Come here, NOW”
Dr. Kersey believes it’s better to give a child time to respond to your wishes, instead of constantly rushing.
Try this instead: “It’s almost time to go. Do you want one minute or two?” she suggests.
18. “You’re in the way”
It can be easy for kids to get underfoot, especially with their constant high-energy.
Try this instead: Kersey advises asking your child to get involved and creating a project they can easily handle, such as: “Can you help me wrap the packages/tie the string?”
19. “Because I said so”
This is probably the most clichéd parenting saying around — but you should avoid it. It’s a powerful phrase, but it takes all control away from your kids. You don’t always have time to explain your reasoning, but you should try to give your kids a better context of why you’re asking them to do (or not do) something.
Try this instead: “I know you really want to visit Tommy this afternoon, but I have to do the laundry — and I need your help. How about we see him tomorrow?” It helps your kids know that their feelings matter and you listen to what they have to say.
No matter what you say to a child, it’s important to think before you speak. Understand that youngsters are naturally curious and active, and speaking to them candidly about any problems or questions they may have is always your best bet.