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January 1999 - Volume 2 - Issue 1

Parenting:10 Things Not to Say to Your Child

By Angela Scplpello from Parenting magazine

Without thinking, we often blurt our words we shouldn't. Here are better alternatives to exaggerations, threats, and bribes.

There are many things we tell our children, especially when we're trying to influence their behavior. Most of them sound relatively harmless, but behind some words are messages that hurt or can lay the groundwork for future problems.

The following are 10 things that, in an ideal world, you'd never say to your kids. If you find yourself thinking "been there, said that," join the club. Here's what you can do that will be better for both of you the next time.

1. "If you don't hurry, I'll leave you here."

Threats only teach children not to take their parents seriously, says Joseph Telushkin, author of Words That Hurt, Words That Heal. Instead of admonishing, present your kids with consequences that they can relate to. Tell your dawdler, "If you don't finish getting dressed, we won't have time to stop at the playground on the way home."

2. "No dessert unless you clean your plate."

Any preschooler will pounce on what he perceives a the wiggle room built into the threat of withholding dessert, says Linda Wagner, who teaches child psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary. Kids see the opportunity to take control: "Okay, what if I just eat all of my potatoes?" You can counter back and fourth, but ultimately, someone's got to give in. More than likely it will be you. Wagner's suggestion: Focus on the shared experience of eating together rather than what's on the plate.

3. "What a good boy you are."

While there isn't anything wrong with this statement on the surface, this kind of praise is insidious. Children realize very quickly that it's impossible to be good all the time and often will go out of their way to prove it, according to Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D., Professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University. Kids can distinguish between exaggerated praise meant to mold their behavior and spontaneous joy.

4. "There's no reason to be afraid."

Children need to recognize and communicate their feelings, whether fear, anger, or sadness. And this kind of statement totally discounts their emotions. The key is to let them know you understand how they feel, says Linda Metcalf, Ph.D., author of Parenting Toward Solutions. Dealing with emotions instead of dismissing them gives you and your child a short-term goal to conquer together.

5. "If you loved me, you wouldn't do that."

Put yourself in your child's place whenever you're tempted to resort to this last-ditch plea. "A statement like this tries to control a kid's behavior by pushing her guilt button," says Metcalf, causing everything from unnecessary pain to resentment. It's better to give a child a reason to behave in a way that would please both of you, says Metcalf. For children over 5: Let them solve the problem.

6. "If you don't behave, I'm going to call your father."

It is risky to show your child you have no recourse other than to tell your spouse. Aside from signaling that you can't control the situation, you saddle your partner with the unpleasant role of the heavy. A better way to deal with anger or frustration, suggests Honig, is to express what you're feeling. If that doesn't work, try leaving the solution up to your child. "If you were the parent, what would you do with you?"

7. "Why did you do that? What's wrong with you?"

Children often don't know or can't articulate why they do what they do. And asking why they do what they do. And asking them won't help them find solutions. Instead, suggests Metcalf, volunteer your observations.

8. "Why can't you be more like your sister?"

The act of pitting one child against another makes comparisons damaging. "Kids then come to see themselves as competitors for a finite amount of parental love," Telushkin says. Anything a parent needs to say to a child about his behavior can be said without referring to a brother or sister.

9. "You're bad."

The message you want to send is that the behavior is the problem , not the child. "Especially as children get older, they come to realize that there are people in the world who are basically good and others who are not," Telushkin says. He suggests parents make it clear that they believe their kids to be good at heart.

10. "If you behave, I'll buy you a toy."

Bribes's won't win you any parent-of-the-year points. Although "rewards" such as gold stars are frequently recommended to get kids to cooperate, but they don't promote good behavior. If you use bribes, you may end up having to "buy" good behavior on an ongoing basis, with your child establishing the terms. Since bribes are often given to elicit certain actions in specific situations, instead, discuss with your child how you'd like him to act, the n ask him what you can do to help him meet those expectation - with the reward being everyone's happiness.

  • Angela Scplpello is vice president at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide and an adjunct professor at Cornell University. Parenting magazine 10/98. Excerpts reprinted with permission.

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