When it comes to parenting, I feel like mothers and fathers are always hearing what they shouldn’t be doing.
I remember feeling so awkward at the playground after the first time I heard why we shouldn’t overpraise and how the well-meant phrase “Good job!” could potentially be doing our children more harm than good by encouraging them to value external validation more than their internal motivation.
I remember thinking to myself, “Well, what in the world should I say when my son shows me how he can go down the slide?!”
When you choose to engage in conscious, meaningful relationships with your children, you might find yourself feeling as if you are not only working to adopt a new way of thinking, but also struggling to learn a new language that coincides.
It can be hard work! So today, I’d like to share eight of my go-to phrases when it comes to parenting my children with respect.
And please keep in mind: it’s not about saying the “right” things — our children need connection, not perfection — so if any of these phrases make you feel like an emotionless robot, find something that feels more authentic to who you are.
1. I'm going to
Before I do anything that directly involves my children, I warn them.
Just as a kind and unhurried nurse gently walks a patient through the process as she tends to them, I walk my children through the steps of things like changing their diapers, getting them dressed, wiping their faces or clipping their nails.
I give them the opportunity to participate in these acts of caregiving instead of being forced to be mere recipients, as Magda Gerber encouraged.
“I’m going to lay you down, now. Ready?” *pause, before gently laying baby on changing table* “Okay, it’s time to change your diaper. First, I’m going to take off your pants. Can you lift up your bum? There we go, thank you. Now, I’m going to…”
Another example of this is telling my children before I leave the room.
I would never just get up and walk away without saying anything if I was at a café with a friend. Just imagine how strange it would feel if the person sitting across from you suddenly got up and left the table. We don’t appreciate being left in the dark — our children included.
Even if I only need to quickly use the restroom and hope to be back before my children need me again — I let my kids know where I’m going, and assure them that I’ll be right back.
I’ve also gotten into the habit of announcing anything that might be startling to my children, such as, “I’m going to close the car door now,” or “I’m going to grind some coffee beans. It’s going to be loud. 1 – 2 – 3.” *turns on grinder*
These simple ways of building trust teach our children so much. They learn that they are worthy of being handled with care, and that they don’t have to constantly be on guard, because there’s someone there to walk them through the everyday processes that involve or impact them. They learn that they can depend on us, and that they can take us at our word.
All of these things contribute to a child growing up with a feeling of security.
2. I hear you
When a child expresses their distress or disappointment, it isn’t uncommon for parents to attempt to quickly quiet their child’s cries.
Yet, unknowingly, we minimize the way our children feel, send the message that their big emotions are “too much,” and that they expected to behave a certain way in order to gain our acceptance or approval.
A child may become quiet in the process, but has not yet had a chance to release their stress. They continue to carry their tension with them until it grows to be too much, and the next little thing sends them over the edge all over again.
So, when my three-year-old cries because he wants to read the book we left at Oma’s house, not any of the twenty others we have at home, I respond by letting him know that I understand how upset he is, creating space for him to let it all out.
“Oh man, you REALLY wanted to read the book we forgot at Oma’s house tonight. I hear you. ONLY that book, right? Aw man. I hear you. I’m here.”
When my 18-month-old bumps her head, a common occurrence, I console her with my calm and comforting presence.
As she cries in my arms, I might say, “Ouch, you hit your head on the table. That didn’t feel good, did it. I hear you.”
The amazing discovery I have made is that my kids usually seem to bounce back from their disappointments, pain and frustration pretty quickly when they don’t have to prove their right to be upset.
By validating how they’re feeling and letting them know I’m right there with them as they move through their emotions, I’m sending them the message that they don’t need to fight to be heard. I’m attuned to the messages behind what their words and tears are telling me.
3. I see you
I once read Katie from Thriving Littles suggest that we replace the label “attention-seeking” behavior with “attachment-seeking.” Further, what we often view as a child fishing for praise, affection and compliments is usually not a mission to hear the words, “Good job!” but rather, something deeper: a bid for connection.
When a child’s gaze meets our own, often a smile and nod sending the message, “I enjoy my view,” is worth more than any form of praise.
Praise offers our judgement and assessment of a child’s behavior and performance, which in turn, leads the child to believe that they must look to an external source in order to define what is „good.“ The absence of praise then leaves the child feeling as if they are not enough, which robs them of the joy they could be finding by following their intrinsic motivation and discovering the satisfaction in accomplishing what they put their own mind to.
Engaging with our children and being truly with them and nowhere else, even if only for a moment, allows us to affectionately respond with the meaningful words, “I see you,” without labelling them or their accomplishments.
By removing praise and providing our presence, we create space for our children to form their own opinions about who they are and what they do — what they think is good, great, fantastic and wonderful.
And they can rest assured that our delight in them remains truly unconditional — that our love and affection can be neither earned, nor lost.
So if my toddler shows me a completed painting with delight in her bright eyes, I pause so I can fully take in what I see, and thoughtfully point out the details that I notice.
“I see what you’ve painted! Do you want to tell me about it? I’m looking at how many colors you used here, and how the lines go from the very top to the very bottom of the paper — I can tell you worked very hard on this! Should we hang it up on the refrigerator together?”
4. I can't/won't let you
In a perfect world, we would never forget to put the finger nail clippers away and out of our toddler’s reach after using them, we would all have those modern types of stoves that have the child-proof knobs on them, and our children would automatically reach up to hold our hands the moment we stepped outside.
Setting limits is an imperative part of life with children — young children, especially. In order to set them with love and respect, it helps to be confident about when limits are necessary and how to communicate them.
Some reasons for setting limits with love include…
for a child’s own safety/well-being
for another person’s safety/well-being
to hinder damage being done to any items
to keep the peace of the home
So, let’s say it was one of those days, and you forgot to put the finger nail clippers away. Now they’re in your toddler’s hand.
Instead of labeling them as a no-no, snatching them out of their hand or yelling and scaring them into give it back to you, try approaching your child in a calm manner.
“Oh, I see you found those fingernail clippers, it seems like they’re interesting to you! I forgot to put them away. I can’t let you hold those, they aren’t safe. I need you to give them to me.”
Then, hold out your hand, and wait. Or if you fear they might hurt themselves (or you) with the clippers, hold onto them and wait for your child to let go. You might offer to look at them together before putting them away.
Other examples include…
“I see you’re using the drumsticks right now. You can play on the carpet. I can’t let you hit on the table — that can hurt the wood.”
“I won’t let you hit me.” *while blocking the child’s hand* “That hurts. What are you trying to tell me? Would you like to use the stool I’m sitting on? I’m sitting here, right now. Hmm, what can we do?”
“I won’t let you yell in this room while your sister is sleeping. If you need to use a loud voice, we can go downstairs together.”
Telling a child what you can, cannot, are, and are not willing to let them do communicates boundaries in a clear, kind way. These boundaries are crucial for creating a safe place in which discovery and growth can take place.
5. I need you to
Another phrase that greatly aids in setting limits with love is telling our children what we need them to do instead of barking orders that often end in threats, bribes or shame, if they choose not to do as we ask.
What’s important to keep in mind, is that this pushback is a natural and important part of their development.
However, when our children don’t have a choice but to sit down in their car seat when it’s time to leave for an appointment we’re running late to, or refuse to open their mouth when it’s time to brush their teeth, it’s best to communicate with empathetic clarity.
If I’m met with an arched back when I go to buckle my toddler in her car seat, I first audibly acknowledge the message of obvious dislike she is communicating, before telling her, “I need you to sit down so I can buckle you.”
And when we’re brushing her teeth, I might say, “Okay, now I need you to open your mouth reeeeeaaaally wide so I can get the teeth in the very back! I think I can still see some leftover sandwich back there — time to scrub it alllll off.”
6. What's your plan?
This is a phrase my 18-month-old uses daily — often after dropping something onto the ground.
Whether she does so intentionally or not, I refrain from quickly jumping up, reaching down and handing it back to her.
Instead, I trust in her competence and ability to problem-solve, and do so by joining in her experience before asking her how she plans to handle it.
“Oh, the spoon you were holding is on the floor, now. Hmm, it seems like you’d like to have it again… what are you going to do?”
After a moment or two of silence, she’ll usually climb down from her perch and retrieve whatever it was that had landed on the floor.
I’ve asked my three-year-old the same question when I’ve stumbled upon questionable scenes involving him moving furniture or holding kitchen utensils. Instead of making assumptions about what he’s doing or stopping him in his tracks, I’ve started to, first, ask him what he’s up to without an eyebrow raised.
“Hey, I see you’re holding a sharp knife. What are you planning on doing with that?”
Once he explains his thought process to me, I might respond by telling him that I can’t let him use the knife alone, and ask if he has any other ideas of ways he could accomplish the task at hand.
Our children, brilliant and innovative thinkers, rarely have trouble coming up with alternative plans!
7. It seems like
I think we all know how awful it feels to be misunderstood, misjudged or mislabeled — nobody likes being put into a box.
For this reason, I always try to carefully word statements surrounding my perceptions of what my children are doing and how they are feeling.
It is so easy to jump to conclusions, but thinking we’ve figured our children out and learned all of their ins and outs, robs us from the daily opportunity of approaching them in wonder. Let’s choose not to let our assumptions stand in the way of our relationships.
So, when my daughter screams as soon as I buckle into her stroller, I might tell her what I believe is going on, but ask for confirmation. “It seems like you don’t want to sit in the stroller right now. Is that what’s going on?”
I’ll never forget the moment my son pointed to his shoulder when I asked him those exact words when he was just a little over one year old, and he stopped screaming for a moment to state the word, “tight,” with a disgruntled look on his red face next to a shoulder strap that needed to be readjusted.
As parents, we do know our children better than anyone else, but we will never be capable of reading their minds.
Letting go of the assumption that we know what they are thinking provides us with countless opportunities to deepen our connection as we get down on their level, look into their eyes, and ask.
8. ...or do you need my help?
While my three-year-old was slicing some mozzarella cheese we needed for a recipe today, he asked if he could have a bite.
“You can eat one piece, but we need the rest for our quiche.”
As soon as he ate one bite, I noticed his fingers hovering over the small pile of squares, obviously longing for another one.
“Can you leave the rest on the cutting board, or do you need my help?” I asked.
“I want to eat ALL of it!” he replied.
“Oh yeah, that cheese sure is yummy! It seems like you need my help not to eat any more. I’ll put the cutting board over here where you can’t reach it.”
My son nodded.
When we approach boundary-setting as a chance to show our children we’ve got their backs, we eliminate a multitude of unnecessary power struggles.
Communicating that we are there to help our children control their impulses when it’s too difficult for them to do so themselves shows them that we are on their team, not against them.
So, rather than growing stern or counting to three, let’s simply help out our kids when it’s clear that they need it!
9. The problem is
This phrase could possibly be saving the best for last.
I can’t even count the number of arguments and power struggles that have been completely avoided by teaming up with my kids to solve a problem instead of turning against each other with a “No.” “Yes!” “No.” or me turning into a referee. (No, thank you!)
“The problem is, we only have one, blue plate and two kids who both want to use it right now. Hm, what can we do?”
“Ah, I’d love to eat some ice cream right now, too! That sounds so yummy! The problem is, if we eat ice cream now, our bellies will already be full when we get to our friends’ house for lunch. We’re not going to get any ice cream, today.”
“I wish I could be in three places all at once! Wouldn’t that be cool? One of me holding you, one of me holding you, and one of me holding your baby sister. The problem is, there’s only one of me to put all three of you to bed, tonight. Do you have any ideas how we could make this work?”
Inviting our children to problem-solve with us leads to creative, innovative ideas, at times! And even when there is no solution, highlighting the problem sends our children the message that we’re not against THEM.
As a lover of words, it has been one of the most invigorating discoveries for me to realize that I have the power to communicate the messages of love and respect I want to send my children by making adjustments to my language.
I hope these phrases that have grown so natural for me, bring as much peace into your family dynamic as they have in ours!
P.S. You can find this post on Instagram here.