Our children are often the best mirrors. Over time, I have taken a step back and realized I needed to clean up my communication.
I replaced my judgmental, negative, threatening tone with a neutral, problem solving, empathetic, encouraging one (this took TONS of practice, and I'm still a work in progress) and my little girl's behavior improved dramatically.
The lesson was clear for me. Talk to mini-humans the way you'd like to be talked to and things will go a lot smoother. Easier said than done, so over the years, I've adopted the motto “Progress over perfection."
These 20 positive phrases are a great place to start if you'd like to make a fresh start with your communication, and help your kids to listen:
1. "What do you need to remember?"
Take a break from: "Be careful."
Example: "What do you need to remember when you play at the park?" or "Please move slow like a careful turtle when walking on top of that wall."
Explained: Kids often ignore when we say the same thing again and again. Instead, engage their critical thinking skills and have them re-state the important precaution. Or give them specifics on what you want.
2. "Please talk softly."
Take a break from: "Stop yelling!" or "Be quiet!"
Example: "Please talk softly or whisper" (said in a whisper voice) or, "I love your singing, AND I need you to go outside or in the playroom if you need to sing loud."
Explained: Some kids are naturally louder than others. If they have trouble speaking softly, show them where they can go to be loud and also use the power of the whisper. In combination with a gentle touch and eye contact, whispering is an incredibly effective way to get kids to listen.
3. "Would you like to do it on your own or have me help you?"
Take a break from: "I've asked you three times, do it now!"
Example: "It's time to leave. Would you like to put on your shoes by yourself, or have me help you?" or "Would you like to hop in your car seat by yourself or have me put you in it?"
Explained: Most kids respond incredibly well to being empowered. Give them a choice and their critical thinking skills override their temptation to push back.
4. "What did you learn from this mistake?"
Take a break from: "Shame on you" or "You should know better."
Example: "What did you learn from this mistake?" or "What did you learn and how will you do it differently next time, so you don't get in trouble at school?"
Explained: Focusing on motivation to change behavior for the future will get you much better results than placing shame on past misbehavior.
5. "Please ______________."
Take a break from: "Don't!" or "Stop it!"
Example: "Please pet the dog gently" or "Please put your shoes in the closet."
Explained: Do any of us go through our day telling waitresses, baristas, friends, etc. what we DON'T want? No, right? We wouldn't get the best response if we said "Do NOT give us a whole milk latte" or "I don't want the chicken." That form of negative communication isn't perceived well and puts undue strain on relationships. Instead, try asking for what you do want.
6. "We are on cheetah time today and need to move fast!"
Take a break from: "Hurry up!" or "We are going to be late!"
Example: "We're on racehorse time today! Let's see how fast we can move!"
Explained: Be sure to let them be on turtle time sometimes! We could all use a healthy dose of slowing down, so provide mornings where everyone is relaxed and kids can move slow.
7. "Do you want to leave now or in ten minutes?"
Take a break from: "Time to go...now!"
Example: "Do you guys wanna leave now or play for ten more minutes, then leave?
Why it works: Kids love to be in charge of their own destiny, especially power kids! This takes a bit of proactivity, but it works like a charm: Give them a choice and they'll respond much better when you say, "Okay, 10 minutes is up, time to go."
8. "Let's add that toy you want to your birthday list."
Take a break from: "We can't afford that" or "No, I said no toys."
Example: "I am not willing to buy that, would you like me to put it on your birthday wish list?"
Explained: If we're being honest, we can technically afford the $5 lego at checkout, we're just not willing to purchase it (but then we'll buy a $5 almond milk latte). Instead of blaming our finances and creating feelings of scarcity, own your limit, then offer ideas to help them learn how to get it, such as a birthday gift or using allowance money.
9. "Stop, breathe, now ask for what you want."
Take a break from: "Stop whining!"
Example: "Let's stop, breathe together, now try again to ask for what you want."
Explained: Be sure to model this too. Keep repeating it calmly while breathing with them, till they can self-calm and change the way they're talking.
10. "Respect yourself and others."
Take a break from: "Be good."
Example: "Remember to respect yourself and others when you're inside the bounce house today."
Explained: Be specific, as kids often don't absorb the general statements we throw at them. Ask for what you want and have them restate what is important to remember.
11. "Use your teamwork skills."
Take a break from: "Don't be bossy!" and "No one will want to play with you if you act like that."
Example: "You're a great leader. Remember to use your teamwork skills today. Ask your friends questions instead of telling them what to do, and let others have a turn leading too."
Explained: Many kids who have a strong desire to lead (or feel powerful) are often told they're bossy or that no one will want to be their friends if they act "mean." Instead, become a coach of your child and teach them how good leaders lead with integrity—asking instead of commanding, showing instead of telling and taking turns.
12. "I need you to _____________."
Take a break from: "Stop doing ___" and "It's not OK to ___."
Example: "I need you to pet the dog gently. He loves calming pets and will sit with you longer if you touch him that way."
"I need you to slow down and walk like a turtle right now instead of a racehorse since we're in a dangerous parking lot."
Explained: I statements come across very different than you statements, and kids respond much better when we communicate with them in non-accusatory ways. Also, asking for what you want is huge to guide kids in the direction you want (vs. focusing their brain on what you DON'T want).
13. "It's okay to cry."
Take a break from: "Don't be a baby," or "Don't cry."
Example: "It's ok that you feel sad, I'll be over here if you need me. I know you can find a way to take care of yourself."
Explained: It's incredible how well kids respond when we don't pressure them to "get over their feelings" or try to force them to stop freaking out. Empower and teach them they are capable of moving through the feeling on their own and they'll come out of the sadness sooner—and also build their self-esteem.
14. "How will you take care of yourself?"
Take a break from: Always fixing, i.e., "Do __________, and you'll be fine, it's not a big deal," or "Why are you always so emotional? Here, a cookie will make you feel better."
Example: "It's ok to be ____________. What are some things you can do to help yourself feel better?"
Explained: Empowering kids to take care of themselves is an incredible gift. Kids who learn to move through emotions with integrity and take self-calming action get into trouble less and have higher self-esteem. (A positive parenting curriculum like The Foundations Course can help you learn how to support them in this journey to develop intrinsic care, self-control methods and how to self-calm.)
15. "I'll stop, breathe and wait for you to finish."
Take a break from: "Just let me do it."
Example: "Looks like you need a moment, I'll sit down and wait for two minutes or put the dishes in the dishwasher while I wait."
Explained: Many times, it's us parents that need to chill. Slow down and let them try to tie their shoe themselves or figure out the elevator floor by reading the sign. Kids often do a great job of reminding us to be present. Be ok with a lumpy bed sometimes, or shoes on the wrong foot. The goal here is to let kids try, fail, try again and anchor feelings of capability—so they don't always depend on us to do everything!
16. "I love you no matter what."
Take a break from: "No one wants to be with you when you're bad," or "You're not getting hugs and kisses after acting like that."
Example: "I love you no matter what behavior you have, AND I'd like you to ask your brother for the toy next time, instead of grabbing it."
Explained: Unconditional love is at the core of Positive Parenting and means that our love for our kids does not depend on the level of good behavior they have in the day. We love them with all of our heart no matter what. Feeding this truth into our children pours into their need to belong, which is a key motivating factor that Dr. Rudolph Dreikurs (grandfather of Positive Parenting) helps us understand. When kids' basic needs are met, they misbehave less.
17. "I am not OK with ___________—yet."
Take a break from: "You're not old enough," or "You're too little to do that."
Example: "I'm not OK with you walking on top of that brick wall because I'm scared you'll fall and hurt yourself."
Explained: When we own our fears and worries, our kids respond and respect our limits a lot better. Kids often feel like they are old enough, strong enough, big enough and capable enough to do big things like ride bikes fast, climb high fences and carry big glasses of juice…but it's us that isn't ready to take the risk yet. Communicate this to your kids using the word I, and they will push back less.
18. "You care, so I'd love for you to decide."
Take a break from: "I don't care."
Example: "You know what? I'm flexible on this, so can you choose for us. I'd love your help."
Explained: When we really don't care, this is a great opportunity to empower our kids and let them lead! Good leaders are also good followers so teaching our kids this through letting them make decisions is good practice.
19. "I believe in you and am here to support you."
Take a break from: Rescuing, i.e., "I'll take care of this." or "Why do I have to do everything for you?"
Example: "I can see how this is tough for you and I believe in you to get through this. I am here to support you if you need ideas on how to handle the situation with integrity."
Explained: It's important that as parents we set our kids up for success in the world to take care of themselves, solve their own problems and have confidence that they are capable. Supporting instead of rescuing often takes more patience, but it builds kids' self-esteem and intrinsic motivation in the most beautiful ways.
20. "How are you feeling?"
Take a break from: "Chill out; you don't need to get so upset!"
Example: "I can see you're upset, what are you feeling?"
Explained: Helping kids identify their emotions and communicate them effectively is an important element of positive parenting. When children get comfortable actually feeling an emotion and communicating it to others (instead of denying it and trying to make it go away), behaviors have a tendency to be much more respectful.
It takes a lot of practice and patience to consistently swap in these positive phrases.
A version of this story was originally published March 10, 2020. It has been updated.