Watch Your Words

8 Things A Parent Should Never Say To Their Child

Threatening harm or the loss of love might are obvious no-no’s, but there are more subtle phrases that are just as damaging.

Originally Published: 
A child and dad lying on the floor, talking.

In the absence of any real strategy, many parents opt for a stream-of-consciousness style of parenting — which is to say they react to their kid’s behaviors with a litany of seemingly parental phrases they’ve picked up over the years. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the approach. It’s certainly understandable. But unfortunately, many of the clichés at hand are based on outdated or wrongheaded assumptions about how kids work. Others phrases aren’t actually productive in the ears of children, but are merely emotional reactions to the stress of being responsible for tiny, crazed humans.

These are eight of the worst and most common phrases to avoid.

“Get It Out Of Your System”

Sometimes kids struggle with mysterious compulsions. They might be unable to fight the urge to run around the house naked, make annoying high-pitched noises, or use potty talk. Some parents respond by offering a temporary reprieve of consequences so the kid can “get it out of their system.” Sadly, that concept is based on a tragic misunderstanding of the human brain and the concept of catharsis.

The fact is that children are not born with a finite desire to run naked through the house. That’s not how the human mind works. So, telling them to go ahead and run naked won’t somehow exhaust their urge to strip and sprint. In fact, it’s likely to do the opposite. A kid who is allowed to “get it out of their system” is actually delighting in having their behavior reinforced.

The better idea to address problematic behaviors is to practice the positive-opposite behavior. That might be encouraging a kid to run around in their underwear or pajamas. Or challenging them to keep their clothes on for their nightly sprint because that’s how “big kids” do it. The idea is to reinforce the good behavior, not the annoying one.

“You’re A Bad Kid”

In their darkest moments, parents might feel like their kid is truly a bad person. They might feel like their spawn is spiteful and leaning into bad behavior for the hell of it. And when experiencing the anger that comes with those dark moments, the desire to ask a kid why they’re so bad, or even tell them they’re bad, can become irresistible.

But the parental turmoil caused by a kid’s shitty behavior is based on an assumption that is most certainly false. Kids misbehave for an enormous variety of reasons, and none of them are because they are hate-filled, spiteful people. But telling a kid that’s what they are allows them to internalize the message. This can lead to even worse behavior and a slate of psychological issues including depression and anxiety.

The better tactic is to call out the behavior as being bad and continue to reinforce that the kid is, in fact, a good person capable of doing good. Calling out the behavior, and not the kid, also allows parents to connect it to natural consequences, as in: “You threw the toy and now the toy is going into time out.” That is a much harder task when telling a child their whole being is bad.

It’s even better to call out good behaviors. They happen a hundred times day, and putting them in the light accentuates the positive.

“…Or Else…”

The term “or else” is a shoddy bridge between behavior and consequence. More often than not, it’s said in anger and denotes a threat. But threats are an ineffective way to parent, and a person who makes threats is rarely behaving rationally.

Better than threatening to “turn this car around” or “give them something to cry about” is emphasizing the natural consequences of a kid’s actions. But there are some rules: Consequences have to be logically related to the behavior, immediate, and given calmly, if they’re going to alter a kid’s thinking. It’s also important that the consequence comes with an assurance that the kid is still very much loved.

“Stop Being Shy”

One of the best ways to push a kid toward an anxiety disorder is to badger them about being shy and forcing them to say hello to people they feel uncomfortable with. And when the parental exhortation includes a command to hug, shake hands, or kiss, it’s essentially saying “your body and boundaries are meaningless and can be overridden by anyone with more authority than you.” Given the recent cultural moment of #MeToo, maybe that’s not the best takeaway for shy kids.

What helps shyness is practice, support, and preparation. Shy kids will do best if they know what’s about to happen and have practiced being forthcoming with a greeting, even if it is a high-five rather than a handshake or a warm embrace. It also helps to manage the expectations of a visitor.

“Go To Your Room”

Time-out pros understand this discipline tactic is a measured response to antisocial behavior. A time-out gives kids a chance to reflect on their behavior when it’s administered with calm consideration and a talk about what happened and what could have been done differently.

More importantly, time-outs are meant to increase pro-social behavior. So banishing a kid to their room is the last thing a parent would want to do. There’s no telling what might be going on in there, anyway. Book reading? Playing with toys? Whatever the kid is doing in their room, it’s most likely not considering their behavior. Better to keep them close and quiet than distant and private.

“Why Can’t You Be More Like Your Sister?”

Sibling rivalries can be incredibly damaging. In fact, physical fighting in a family home is more likely to be between siblings than between parents and kids. The last thing a tense relationship needs is additional competitive pressure from parents.

Instead of making unhelpful comparisons, parents would do better by encouraging cooperation between siblings. Encouraging non-competitive cooperative games or asking kids to work together to complete a shared chore is much better than pointing out comparative weaknesses.

“If You Really Loved Me…”

There is a fine line between guilt and coercion. Guilt is a necessary and healthy emotion when it moves a person toward reparations. And the feelings of guilt require empathy — an essential recognition that one’s actions have caused another person to feel hurt.

Parents can leverage guilt by pointing out that a child’s actions can affect the way other people feel. But the tactic goes too far when a parent threatens or questions the bond of love with their kid. That love is what allows a child to build a sense of security from which they can explore the world, understanding there is always a safe place to return too.

Shake a kid’s foundation of love and you shake their sense of security. This can lead to anxiety and even more bad behavior.

It’s far better to reinforce to a kid that no matter how they act they will still be loved, while reminding them that their behavior can make others feel angry, happy, proud, or sad.

“You’re Asking For It”

Raising a child under the threat of physical harm has been shown by research to be a great way to create antisocial violent adults, particularly if the threats progress to action. It needs to stop.

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