1. “Don’t do that!”
The subconscious part of most children’s brains does not hear the word don’t. You might say, “Don’t run with scissors”, but your child will hear, “Run with scissors.” Say what you need to say in a positive way: “Remember, we walk when we are carrying scissors.” Tell them what you want from them, not what you don’t want.
2. “Why can’t you be more like your brother/sister?”
Comparing one child unfavourably to another will make them believe that you love their sibling more than you love them. The result is that they may resent you, lose respect for you and emotionally move away from you. Alternatively, they may direct all their energy to trying to please or impress you so that you will love them more, to the detriment of their own development. It will also create resentment and animosity towards their sibling. Whatever you want to say, leave comparisons with other children out of it.
3. “You’re clumsy/lazy/stupid/ungrateful/selfish . . . ”
When you tell your child that you think poorly of them, they believe it: “If my mum thinks that, what does everybody else think about me?” We need to build our kids’ sense of self-worth, not destroy it. Make your comments about the action, not the child. For instance, instead of labelling them with a negative term, try saying, “That was a silly thing to do wasn’t it?”
4. “Give grandma a big kiss!”
When you make children submit to unwanted physical contact, you are telling them that they do not have authority over their own body. Carrying this through into teenage years and beyond leads to trouble. Grandma can ask for a kiss and if the response is “No”, then this must be respected.
5. “You won’t be able to do that. Let me help you.”
They will believe you. You are telling them you have no faith in their ability. The logical consequence to them is that they can’t do anything. If they don’t get encouragement from you, they will look for it elsewhere, creating an emotional gap between you and your child. Let them do it. Let them fail. Let them learn and try again.
6. “I told you that would happen.”
They know already. “I told you so” is not going to help them, it only reinforces their beliefs that they are stupid. They need to know that their parents are there to pick up the pieces when things go wrong. They already feel embarrassed. What they need from you is to fix any harm they suffered from their curiosity and adventurousness. Always be aware of, and support, your child’s self-esteem.
7. “Don’t be silly. You don’t need to cry.”
Children need to be allowed to feel and express their emotions. The result of suppressed feelings—in boys particularly—is well documented. Trivialising their feelings diminishes their sense of self-worth. What seems of little concern to you can be major to them. Validate their feelings.
8. “Good job. Well done!”
It sounds supportive, but it’s not telling them anything. If you want to build their self-worth, then tell them what it is they have done well and the quality that made it good. If you don’t tell them what they did well, then it is empty praise. Also, praise them for what they have control over, rather than what they don’t. Instead of “You’re very clever”, say “You worked at it until you got it right.”
9. “Your dad’s a fool.”
Don’t say negative things about the other parent. It can be very confusing for your child and affects their sense of security. When children know that their parents are happy with each other, they also know they will be fed, sheltered and protected. Being demonstrative and loving to your partner also helps children learn how to be in a loving relationship. Openly and unreservedly love your partner.
10. “Wait until your father/mother gets home.”
Instilling a sense of fear for a parent, who they expect to protect them, will not serve your child well. A child who is afraid is not going to learn anything. Discipline with love, not fear.
When you do say the wrong thing—and you will—don’t sweat it. Admit when you are wrong. Apologise when you hurt them or let them down. Don’t ruin a good apology with an excuse. Own up when you make a mistake. Be fun to be with.
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