6 powerful phrases every parent should use
What you say, and how you say it, matters a lot
The summer my daughter turned five, I noticed that she came on strong with new friends. She followed them around, sometimes reaching out for her pals' hands, then becoming upset if they pulled away. After one such incident, I hugged my frustrated little one.
"Listen, honey, " I said. "Not everyone will like you. And that's ok."
"Don't grab her hand again," I said. "Just tell her, 'it's fine,' then walk away."
After a few role-playing sessions where we took turns being the rejecting friend, my daughter stopped acting desperate for friendship. And I like to believe my phrasing played some small part in that change. Reminding her that it's okay not to be liked by everyone protects her as she gets older from being at the mercy of "friends" saying they won't like her if she doesn't do what they tell her.
She's 10 now, but I have continued to be conscious of the specific phrases I use, because the language we deploy can send powerful messages. Here are a few phrases I think every parent should have in their repertoire.
1. "I'm proud of you. But you should also be proud of yourself." A few summers ago, my daughter had to pass the deep-water challenge at camp by holding her breath underwater, floating on her back, and swimming four laps without touching the sides of the pool. Most of her friends had already passed the test. I told her to practice and work hard. After several weeks, she aced the test and showed me her medal.
"I'm proud of you, but more important, you should be proud of yourself," I said.
"I am," she replied, a smile spreading across her face. I've continued using this phrase with her with every accomplishment. Studies show focusing on the child's response, not the parent's, lets the child own the success, instead of depending on outside validation.
2. "No one is the judge and jury of your self worth." My daughter came home from school one day very upset. "Jackie said that I have a stupid laugh and I shouldn't laugh anymore."
"Listen, this will not be the last time someone insults you," I said. "It will happen throughout your life, so you need to learn how to deal with it. Nobody can determine your value but you."
"What do you mean, mom?" she asked.
"I mean that no one is the judge and jury of how smart or funny or nice or pretty or silly you are. If you let someone be that, you are giving them all the power."
The next time someone tried telling her what to wear, think, or do, she told me she shrugged and said, "That's what you think, but you can't tell me how to act. You're not the boss of me." I'm happy my girl has this tool in her emotional toolkit.
3. "You worked hard on this. You put a lot of energy into it." I've learned that praising my daughter for the effort she puts into something — whether it's studying, auditioning for a play, or learning how to play tennis — signals to her that growth is possible. Research from Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck shows that praising intelligence or ability can backfire because when kids find a task difficult, rather than easy, they'll think it's a reflection of their abilities. The point, says Dweck, is to praise the process, not the product. The best way to motivate your child is to emphasize the hard work they put in, the strategies they tried, and their persistent motivation. Dweck says that praising achievement is like junk food; it's bad for kids.
4. "Mistakes are ok, because that's how you learn." When my daughter used to color outside the lines in her coloring books, I never told her she was doing it wrong. As author Jessica Lahey explains in her book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, parents need to give their kids a chance to experience failure and the opportunity to learn to solve their own problems. Failing also fosters creativity, and resilience, espouses creativity expert Ken Robinson in The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.
5. "It's your responsibility, not mine." I don't want my daughter to feel I am there to do her job for her, whether that job is to bring her folder to class every day, clean up her room, or remember that Friday is gym day, which means she needs to wear sneakers. So I put the onus on her, where it belongs. This gives her a sense of ownership and independence.
6. "I am sorry that I yelled."All parents yell, but the smart ones apologize. I've sometimes given myself a "mom time out" when I've felt stressed out about my daughter's behavior and raised my voice as a result. A simple and heartfelt, "I was wrong to yell at you. I'm sorry," shows my child I am human, too.
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