I recently wrote about what parents should let their kids see them doing to role-model well-adjusted behavior and have been planning this follow-up piece. Why? Because helping children to grow up successful and levelheaded is about ensuring they see you doing and saying certain things.
Plenty has been written about what not to say in front of your children but not so much on the opposite. So I enlisted the help of parenting experts Patrick A. Coleman, parenting editor at Fatherly.com, and Daniel Wong, author of 16 Keys to Motivating Your Teenager. I blended their expertise with my own experience to share the 11 most important things your child should “catch” you saying.
1. “Your practice is paying off.”
This is about your child hearing you reward their effort and improvement as opposed to having a label reinforced, such as “You’re so smart!” And kids don’t always see that their practice is helping them improve, especially when they’re more attuned to how good others are at something. Being specific about how they’re improving will encourage them to keep going.
2. “I don’t know.”
I used to think feigned omnipotence with my daughter was the way to go, but as soon as I realized I couldn’t keep up the façade, well, I dropped the façade.
Saying “I don’t know” shows your vulnerability. The key is to say it with confidence to indicate that it’s OK that you don’t know everything, but then to follow up your statement with an effort to find out the answer. It role-models curiosity and a desire to learn.
3. “Is that really true?”
Kids are even better than adults at letting negative self-talk build an unhelpful ongoing narrative. Combine that with a constant comparison culture, exposure to social media, and increasing peer pressures at school and voilà–you have a child with a negative self-story.
Asking them “Is that really true?” when you hear them spouting their frustrations or self-disappointments forces them to challenge their assumptions. Keep asking and they’ll realize their “supporting reasons” hold no weight.
4. “I’m sorry.”
This is just good ol’ fashioned role-modeling of humility and empathy. Research from University of Kent psychologists Nicola Abbott and Lindsey Cameron shows how important it is to role-model empathy for children. It teaches them kindness and forces them to be introspective about the harm they’ve brought to another person. It demonstrates how to begin the reconciliation and recovery process.
5. “I hear you.”
Children, like all other human beings, want to be heard and respected. The fact that they know so relatively little or that their demands and statements can be ridiculous doesn’t matter. You want to be heard when you’re frustrated or otherwise, and so do they. Hearing “I hear you” teaches them to be patient even when they disagree with someone.
6. “What do you think?”
Children, like all other human beings, want to know that they and their opinions are valued. I often ask my daughter for her opinion, especially on things that I don’t know as much about (like all things pop music). Asking this helps a child mature and form cohesive opinions.
7. “You were right.”
Saying this shows that we all make mistakes, even Mom and Dad. I’ve found, surprisingly enough, it also encourages reciprocation from my daughter and an improved sense of collaboration and equality. You can be right sometimes, Dad (even if she’s right the other 99 percent of the time).
8. “I trust you.”
I say this to my daughter because it raises the stakes of her acting in a trustworthy manner. My trust in her is a given. However, I want her to continue earning it and to imagine the pain of hearing me say the opposite in those moments where she’ll have a choice to make — to behave in a trustworthy and responsible way, or not?
9. “I’m sure you can do it.”
You can say many things to boost your child’s confidence, but I like this the best because it shows your certainty and belief in them while still indicating that it’s actually up to them. The implied words after this are “… if you put your mind to it.”
10. “You decide.”
It’s like catnip for many young adults. Responsibility. Decision space. Independence. It shows trust and that you value their ability to be self-determining.
11. “I love you.”
This one may seem obvious, but there are “strong silent” types who withhold saying it. And there are many unhelpful associated beliefs–such as saying it too much defuses its power. Not so. Kids need reminders, often, of your unconditional love, and hearing it is powerfully unambiguous.
As Coleman says: “‘I love you’ should be said loudly and often, and not just when your child has done something you deem worthy of love. In fact, saying ‘I love you’ is most powerful when a child feels most in danger of losing his or her parent’s love.”
So say all of these things, often, with conviction. Then you can say you did your best.