I’ve always known that words have power—power to weave vivid stories that set my imagination afire, to cut my soul deeper than any knife, to bring hope when I sit in darkness. As a writer, I’m always seeking for the most accurate words, the ones that really communicate the abstract ideas swimming in my mind.
As a mother, I’ve found that the words I speak to my children have power to shape their actions. Both what I say and how I phrase things make a difference in how my children respond. I know this. And yet I still struggle—more often than I like to admit—to speak the kind, patient, loving words that I wish came more automatically right after my toddler has dumped his dinner on the floor. I still lose my patience, and every day I tell myself, “I’ll try again tomorrow.” And I really do try.
So, as I share what I’ve learned about what to say—and what not to say—to kids, let me put out a big disclaimer: I am a huge work in progress when it comes to this. But, I think it’s good stuff to try to do, and I hope you’ll find it useful too.
Replace “okay?” with “got it?” “Okay” is a little word that so many of us casually throw into our interactions with our kids all the time: “It’s time to clean up now, okay?” or “Get your shoes on, okay?” Why, when we make a request, do we add “okay” to the end of it? What we want is to make sure that our children have heard us, right? But what it actually does is turn a command into a question that the child can then choose to obey…or not.
Adding “okay” completely negates our authority as parents to make a request and expect our children to obey. We say, “It’s time to go home now, okay?” and then we get frustrated when they don’t come right away. Well, we did ask them if it was okay with them, right?
I’m all for kids having choices and for having a measure of control over their lives, but there are times that it’s simply not their choice. At those times, I now try to replace “okay” with “got it.” This little phrase more accurately fulfills my goal to make my child acknowledge that he heard me. For example, “You have time to do one more puzzle, and then we need to clean up. Got it?” See how that little change leaves no room for debate? It simply asks for confirmation that your child understands your expectations.
Replace “if you…” with “when you…” We’ve all said something like, “If you get in the car, I’ll give you a treat.” or “If you clean up your toys, you can play with your friend next door.” Bribery? Oh yes, I use it. But, I try to be really careful about how I phrase my requests. If it’s something that has to happen regardless of whether my child wants it to, I never (at least I try not to) introduce the uncertainty of “if.”
“If” just like “okay” makes kids think that obedience is optional. Instead, I want my boys to see their rewards as a natural result of complying with my requests. So I say, “When you are sitting in your seat, then we can go to the park” or “When you’ve gone potty, then you can watch a TV show.”
The only time I intentionally use “if” now is when describing bad behavior that will earn negative consequences: “If you choose to leave your toys on the floor, then I will put them up high and you won’t be able to play with them” or “If you choose to hit your brother, then you will go play by yourself in your room until you can be kind.”
Replace “no” with “yes” imagery. Stop hitting! What did you just picture in your mind? Was it the hitting or the stopping? If you’re like me, you imagined one of your adorable little children walloping another child—probably one who was smaller and innocent of any real wrongdoing, because they’re angels like that.
Now try this: “Be gentle.” What did you picture this time? I have a lovely little image in my mind of my three-year-old petting my one-year-old like a puppy. Maybe not ideal, but certainly less violent than the previous image.
Our brains are wired to turn words into mental pictures. However, they’re wired to focus on the action words, not the other words. That means that even when we say no or stop, our child’s mind is wired to picture the bad action, thus reinforcing it. So, if you’re tired of your bathroom turning into a floodplain during bath time, instead of yelling at little Jamie to stop splashing, tell him, “Keep the water in the tub.” Instead of “Don’t climb over the couch,” try “Go around the couch, please.”
These are all really small differences in semantics, but I’ve seen it make a difference in how my kids respond to me. When we think a little deeper about what we’re really saying, we can use words to help our children be the best kiddos they can be.
QUESTION: Do you have any advice for what to say or not to say to kids that has made a difference in your home?
CHALLENGE: Pick one of the three semantic suggestions and focus on using it as you speak to your child this week. Pay attention not only to what you say but also how you say it—your tone, facial expressions, and body language. Notice any differences you see with reducing power struggles in your home.
Edited by Megan Roxas and Becky Fawcett
Image from Shutterstock; graphics by Julie Finlayson.
This was such a good reminder for me.. Thank you! We often are reminding our kids “it’s what you say and how you say it” but I forget I can use this to my advantage.
Fantastic reminder. I have always known and tried to use the positive imagery words rather than saying stop or no. The introduction of “got it” is brilliant. I have always cringed when I hear myself (or my husband) ask “okay?” at the end of a directive. It’s as if we are begging our child to comply. I’m writing a poster for my kitchen cabinet today and sharing this on facebook. Many thanks!
Lindsay Rasmussen says
Such helpful tips! Thank you! Something that I have noticed myself doing lately is giving directions to my kids when they are not in the room or when we’re not making eye contact (ie shouting down the hall to take a bath). This led to me becoming frustrated rather quickly because I thought they were being disobedient or ignoring me. Turns out, we never connected at all. I’m more aware of this and ask them to do something when we are in close contact(an arm’s length away) and can see each other’s eyes. This makes a big difference!
Lindsay, I just started paying attention to eye contact, too! As a follow-up to all the “speaking to kids” stuff I learned, I started doing an experiment where I try to get on my little boy’s level as often as possible when talking to him. I’ve found I yell less and I’m much more inclined to teach (and listen) than to lecture. I’m glad you shared this idea!
Replacing “okay” with “got it” is going to be my focus.
Mine too, Alison! This is such a great reminder!
Working in a school, I see a lot of kids in a day. One thing I cringe when I hear is “your a bad boy/girl/ kid”. All day I hear I’m stupid, I’m a bad kid. The only way this gets in their heads is if someone says it to them. Kids make mistakes, you may even say they did a bad thing, but please never tell a child they are bad. They believe it and it’s heartbreaking.