When we speak to our kids, words do matter. We don't have to get it right all.the.time, but I like to use the same phrases repeatedly to help drive home important lessons. Therefore, I’m sharing the 10 exact expressions my kids hear on a regular basis. Sometimes the simplest things can be the most impactful. You can either listen along or read--in today's episode, I'm sharing how I use these and why they are important.
1. “Sometimes we get angry with each other, but we still love each other”
Why does this matter? Because children tend to think in black + white…all or nothing. It is developmentally normal for kids to think in absolutes—but it can be hurtful. For little ones, it can be hard to understand that we can still love each other AND be angry with one another—those feelings can coexist.
I love you/I hate you. You are my best friend/You are my worst enemy.
It’s not easy for children to see the gray area in between. When we get upset with each other and angry feelings are exchanged, it’s not uncommon for our kids to fear that your love might be turned off like a light switch. So in our house, we end every dispute with this phrase, “Sometimes we get angry with each other, but we still love each other”. Because even if the default is for my kids to think in black and white, I’m going to make darn sure they know that my love is absolute and unconditional.
2. “It sounds like you don’t prefer this…”
Our kids are allowed to say no. They are allowed to opt out. But sometimes they express themselves in words that we don’t love. “This food is gross. I don’t like him. I hate this toy. I won’t play that game."
We could spend all day telling them the words we do not want to hear. “Don’t say that” or “Don’t be mean”. Or instead of criticizing their criticisms, we could lead by example. We can respond with the words that we want to hear instead. As their language is developing, they will adapt to the words that we use (but it takes time!).
That’s why I respond to complaints and negativity with, “It sounds like you don’t prefer this”. This allows me to acknowledge their choice and reflect back some new (more desirable) language to be filed away in their brains and used in the future.
3. “As your Mama, it’s my job to keep your brain and body healthy”
Can I have candy? I need more iPad time. I don’t want to go outside. I want whipped cream for breakfast.
Our kids are persistent. And often they want things we don’t want to give them. Full disclosure, this phrase is as much for ME as it is for them. This saying gives me strength and helps me stay rooted in my principles. It also helps my kids to recognize that I’m not just “being mean”, I’m actually just doing my job.
Here’s a specific example of how I used this recently:
“I know, I know. You don’t want to go on a hike. You just want to stay home and watch TV. But as your Mom, it’s my job to keep your brain and body healthy. That means I have to feed you good food and make sure you move your body a lot. I know it’s not what you want to hear, but I’m just doing my job."
4. "I feel like I’m about to get angry.”
(In many ways, this feels like a threat. But these sayings aren’t about being perfect, they are about being real.) So here’s why I use it. Anger has the tendency to simmer quietly inside of our minds and then explode. When you are trying to hold in your agitation, you are sitting and simmering in silence and then all the sudden you are YELLING—you just can’t hold it in anymore. You go from 0 to 100. When I use this phase, I’m going from 0 to 50…I’m not totally calm but I’m also showing some personal restraint. It prevents the explosion for me.
So when I’m starting to notice myself feeling increasingly agitated (like on the path to yelling…) I will say out loud “I feel like I’m about to get angry”. This serves as a warning sign for myself and the people around me that I’m doing my darn best NOT to explode. And most of the time, it works. My kids will usually step back and give me some breathing room. And I take some deep breaths and calm down.
So mostly I do it for myself. But also for my kids. They are watching and listening. They are seeing me use self-talk to mediate my intense feelings before they get to be unbearable. They are seeing me take deep breaths. They are learning. I am learning.
5. "You are MORE than pretty. You are brave, strong, kind, and clever.”
In the world we live in, “pretty” gets a lot of emphasis. So don’t be surprised if your little girl approaches you frequently to ask, “Do I look pretty?”. Don’t be surprised if strangers stop you in the grocery store to shower her in praise of how “pretty” she is. So how do I respond?
I affirm her, “Yes, you are beautiful. But you are so much more than that. You are brave, strong, kind, and clever.” As with all these simple sayings, we use this on repeat. By using these phrases repeatedly, we are planting important seeds. It’s lovely to be pretty, but it’s a very small part of who we are as women. We are so much MORE than pretty.
6. "I’m still learning. I’m a work in progress."
I had this poignant moment with my daughter a few months ago. She had a runny nose and I kept swooping in to catch it before it dripped. This infuriated her. She didn’t mind me wiping her nose, she just didn’t want me jumping in putting my hands all up in her face without warning. Frankly, she just wanted a little respect. She wanted me to ASK before wiping.
Sounds simple, right? Wrong.
Despite numerous requests, I continued to impulsively wipe her nose. I apologized and found myself saying, “I’m sorry, I’m still learning.”
Because even as a full-grown adult, I am still learning. I frequently get it wrong. I am a work in progress. And mostly I’m thankful that the people around are willing to give me the time, space, and compassion to learn. Because...
Sometimes I make mistakes.
Sometimes I drop stuff.
Sometimes I break stuff.
Sometimes I yell.
Sometimes I cry.
Sometimes I mess up.
Sometimes I do stupid stuff you ask me a million times not to do.
And I need reminders that it’s okay for my kids to do these things too. I’m raising small humans who will frequently get it wrong. They are a work in progress. I won't expect perfectly obedient behavior. I will expect that:
Sometimes they will make mistakes.
Sometimes they will drop stuff.
Sometimes they will break stuff.
Sometimes they will yell.
Sometimes they will cry.
Sometimes they will mess up.
Sometimes they will do stupid stuff I ask them a million times not to do.
And I too, will offer them the time, space, and compassion to learn and grow.
7. “It sounds like you need some personal space.”
As children are growing they are learning to communicate their needs. In the early years, it is rare that these needs are communicated gracefully.
“Get away from me!”
“Leave me alone!”
“I don’t want you here.”
Sometimes we get so caught up in the way the message is being delivered that we can’t even hear the message. Here’s an example.
SCENARIO A: Your child is feeling irritated and she screams at you, “GO AWAY!!!”. Your authoritarian instincts kick in and say, “She can’t talk to me like that! I need to discipline her!” So you get in her face and firmly declare that she can’t speak to adults that way and she’s in big trouble. You find yourself carrying on about how rude she is being. It’s hard to let it go—because you feel so triggered. Perhaps you put her in time out. You end the interaction feeling like you *sort-of* disciplined her but not really sure if you did the right thing.
The truth is, sometimes we get irritated and we need personal space. That is a perfectly reasonable request—and really that’s what she wanted in this scenario. She just didn’t communicate it the way you wanted her to communicate it. And the result is that now you have another battle on your hands.
So let’s try it another way.
SCENARIO B: Your child is feeling irritated and she screams at you “GO AWAY!!!”. Your authoritative instincts kick in and tell you to listen to the core of her message, so you reflect back “It sounds like you need some personal space” and then you close the door and walk away calmly. You avoided a battle AND you have taught her new words to communicate her needs. You HAVE disciplined her—because discipline is about teaching.
You taught her how you wanted her to communicate instead of lamenting about how you DIDN’T want her to communicate.
If we can focus on the message and temporarily put aside the way the message is delivered, we can help to give them new words to communicate their needs. We can reflect back the words we want to hear—and that IS disciplining. Because to discipline means “to teach”.
8. "Can you tell me more about what you’re doing?”
Always approach with inquisition not accusation.
One day I heard this crazy ruckus outside. I walked out and my son was running back and forth along the stone pavers in our yard pounding them with a metal shovel. Back and forth, back and forth. My first inclination was to scream “KNOCK IT OFF! You are going to break something!”. Instead I took a deep breath and walked out calmly and asked…"Can you tell me more about what you’re doing there?”
He told me he was making music. At second glance, he wasn’t behaving erratically after all. He was pretending the stones were a giant xylophone and the metal shovel was a mallet. Each stone made different sounds based on their sizes. So instead of being mad, I was actually impressed with his creativity.
So what did I do? I told him that he could continue as long as he wasn’t damaging anything. We walked around and checked the stones and they were unharmed. So, I let him carry on. Sometimes there’s a method to their madness and we just have to pause and figure out what it is. Always strive to approach with inquisition rather than accusation—because there might be some serious exploratory learning going on.
9. “Okay, let’s do it together!”
Last night I did NOT feeling like cooking dinner. I cook dinner every night and it’s part of my regular routine. But somedays I just don’t want to. Some days I’m tired and overwhelmed and cooking dinner feels HARD. On those days, I’d give anything for someone to sneak up behind me and cheerfully say, “Okay, let’s do it together!”.
This is the phrase I use to break down resistance in my kids—because we all need a helping hand. Even with things we do everyday. Even with things we already know how to do. I’m teaching my kids that family is about working together and collaboration. Therefore, I’m always willing to jump in and model that family value.
✔️You don’t want to put your shoes on?
➡️Okay, let’s do it together. I’ll put on one and you put on the other.
✔️You don’t want to clean up the toys?
➡️Okay let’s do it together. I’ll clean up this pile and you get the other one.
Because as my kids grow and they see me struggling with something simple like cooking dinner…Do I want them to tell me “You already know how to do this Mama. You are old enough to cook dinner.”
I want them to jump in and say “Let’s do it together”. I want them to offer up help and support to each other, to me, and to people in need.
10. "Wow, you are really working hard on that!"
Today, my daughter emptied all of the rubber stamps in our craft supplies and used them to transform the table into the cockpit of Wonder Woman’s invisible jet. Each rubber stamp had a purpose, one in particular made the jet shoot out rainbow exhaust when you pushed it.
When we see our kids deep in play, we get excited. It’s fun to see them pursuing passions and being creative. The result is that, often, we want to comment, make suggestions, and ask questions—which can derail them. First and foremost, if your kid is immersed in a project or play…LET THEM BE!
As parents, we can feel like we need to insert ourselves into the play of our children. But the reality is, we also need to know when to take a back seat and let them take the lead. If they are immersed in play, it’s because that project is intrinsically motivating for them. That means they are doing it because they are interested in it—not because somebody is bribing or praising them.
But if we really must say something in these situations, let’s praise the hard work they are doing. “Wow, you are working really hard on that!”. By praising the effort, we are noticing them but not derailing the work at hand. We are also helping to shift our kids towards a growth mindset, which means teaching them that they are capable beings whose hard work can determine their own future.