Don’t Say That Do Say This: 20 Things Not To Say To Your Child (And What To Say Instead)

A few weeks ago a friend on my Facebook page asked for a list of things not to say to children so I decided to create one for all of us. This list is not exhaustive and I would love to add to it with your suggestions so please leave a comment if you’d like me to add something!

I would also like to know if you need or want explanations for any of these. Many of them are self explanatory, but if you’d like me to elaborate, I’m happy to add more information about why column B is preferable to column A. And here’s another post I wrote on the topic.

And, if you’d like to read a great book on this topic, try Sarah MacLaughlin’s “What Not To Say: Tools for Talking With Young Children” I was surprised to find some phrases in there that I was still using! OK, so here’s my list…

Don’t Say  Do Say
  Good job, nice results.   You tried really hard!
  What a beautiful picture!   Will you tell me about it?
  You’re so smart.   What else?
  Don’t cry.   It’s OK to cry.
  You statements   I statements
  Are you listening?   Can you please remind me what I said?
  Hurry up.   Let’s go!
  You’re OK, you’re tough.   Are you hurt? Did you feel scared?
  Shut up!   I need some quiet time, please whisper.
  I promise, no matter what.   This is the plan. Sometimes plans change. We’ll go with the flow. And I’ll keep you informed.
  Clean up or else…   Let’s play a cleaning game!
  Spot went to sleep and won’t wake up any more.   Spot died. Everything that lives also dies.
  Baby talk   Proper terminology
  Of course! I’ll drop everything else.   Please wait for me.
  Perhaps, maybe, possibly…   Yes, No, or I need to think about that.
  Don’t use sarcasm with young children   Say what you mean and mean what you say when talking with kids
  Get your shoes. We have to go RIGHT NOW!!!   We’re leaving in five minutes, what else do you need to do? OK, let’s go!
  Why did you do that?   How did you feel about that?
  What’s wrong with you?   How can I help?
  He’s just a mean person.   I wonder what was going on for him.

 

I have a feeling we could add to this list forever, but I think this covers many of the phrases that we might be tempted to use and for which there are clear alternatives. If there’s something you’re still wondering about, please ask! If I don’t know, I’ll find out, and if I do know, I’ll respond asap.

Have a great week. Warmly, Shelly

14 comments
StephanievanBeusekom
StephanievanBeusekom

I like the list. I don't agree with saying "Good" anything because it implies that the child could do something bad - and a child never purposely does something "bad" even if it seems like it, all they want is your sympathetic attention! Instead of "Good effort/job," I would suggest "You did [it]!" Supplementing the 'it' with whatever they did or just saying 'it' instead! I also don't like the sound of the "What colours did you use?" because it implies that you are testing them. Instead you could try asking: "How did you make the [eyes/hair/etc]?" or "What is happening in the picture?" "Is there a story to go with this picture?"

Groove dancer
Groove dancer

Instead of "what did you do?" ask "what happened?" Rather than asking "what's wrong?" when a child says they're upset or have a problem, tell them "I'm listening".

KendraCunov
KendraCunov

One thing I like to say (instead of 'maybe', but when I don't have an easy 'yes' or 'no' to offer) is:  I need to think about that for a minute....

JM_Cook
JM_Cook

I've always been a bit confused by the idea that we shouldn't say, " Good job" or "nice results." While I agree we should recognize effort, I don't believe all results are equal. Perhaps with infants it's true but at some point I think we have to acknowledge that value judgements ("job well done" or "I know you tried hard but here's what we're trying to accomplish") are something that children will face throughout life and, in fact, they will need a model for learning how to make those judgements.

 

Can you share your reasoning on this?

AwakeShelly
AwakeShelly moderator

 @StephanievanBeusekom I hear you Stephanie. I really liked your suggestions! I do wonder about quizzing or testing children though. I've found that many children really enjoy showing off their knowledge and asking them what they know can be a fun way to find out how to offer them a new and exciting challenge. I think I'll write a blog about this topic sometime in the future. Thanks so much for your comment!

StephanievanBeusekom
StephanievanBeusekom

 @JM_Cook  Actually, for myself, the reason I never say "Good job" or even "Good result" is implying that the children should look to others for motivation to continue what they are doing (that and something they do could also be "bad" instead of just "good"). What I want is my children to be internally motivated, because they feel good about that they did based on their own feelings of adequacy, not based on me or anyone else, judging them on a "good" (or "bad") job/result. On top of that, that will keep them even stronger from peer-pressure, because they won't look to their peer's to tell them if they should be doing something because it's "good" to those people or not. They will base their own actions/results on how they internally feel about it, and continue or discontinue based on that.

AwakeShelly
AwakeShelly moderator

 @JM_Cook Sure! The idea here is that by focusing on results, rather than effort, children become overly focused on the results of their attempts and they then get fearful of producing "bad" or "wrong" results. When that happens children are less likely to experiment or try at all. They'd rather avoid the potential failure. This is especially concerning because young children have a hard time distinguishing between their actions and themselves, so when they do a "bad job" they tend to think they're a "bad person." In the Montessori classroom many of the materials include a "control of error" or a way for children to realize on their own that something's not quite right. They don't need us to point out their mistakes in order to realize that one result is preferable over another. Often something as simple as an observation, "Oh, I still see some water on the floor," is enough to encourage a child to revisit a job that wasn't completed to satisfaction. And when a job is done well, I can't think of a time when a child didn't realize it on his or her own. Does that clear things up? If you'd like to look into this further, I highly recommend Alfie Kohn's work.

AwakeShelly
AwakeShelly moderator

 @StephanievanBeusekom  @JM_Cook I'm a huge fan of intrinsic motivation too. And I agree that being skilled in checking in with ourselves, rather than gauging public opinion, is a great way to peer-pressure proof our kids. I still struggle with people pleasing behaviors and don't want that for my daughter, if we can avoid it.

JM_Cook
JM_Cook

 @AwakeShelly  @JM_Cook Thanks. That makes sense although I don't see how that reasoning precludes using occasional positive reinforcement like "good job" or, preferably, something more specific.  Although I can see how too much of it (which people tend to do without much thought) could lead to the child feeling anything other than a rave review is a criticism.

JM_Cook
JM_Cook

 @AwakeShelly  @StephanievanBeusekom The book "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success" by Carol Davies has a couple of chapters on this topic specifically related to kids. I found them pretty helpful in understanding the point here.

 

Basically what I am hearing is recognize the accomplishment but praise the effort.

 

So, "You got an 'A'. I'm really proud of how hard you worked on that project." (assuming, of course, they did work hard).

 

Similarly, with failures, recognize the result but offer encouragement and ways forward rather than criticism.

 

Something like, "I know you were hoping for a better grade so let's look at why this was hard and see if there's a better way for you to understand it."

AwakeShelly
AwakeShelly moderator

 @JM_Cook Yes, a more specific observation or information about what you're appreciating and enjoying would be preferable to the more generic "good job." Something like, "I noticed you poured it without spilling this time," would be preferable to "good job pouring!" :)