The Destructive Power of Always and Never

We’ve talked about words and phrases that don’t serve connection before. The word “should” is one to avoid, as are “you” statements and empty praise but what about seemingly innocuous words like “always” and “never”? Sure there are perfectly reasonable uses for these words that don’t cause any trouble. “I will always love you,” for example.

But if we really sit down and analyze our uses of these two words, we are likely to find that they’re often inaccurate and they most certainly invite argument. Let’s take a common example from my own experience, “You never have your shoes on when it’s time to leave the house!”

The problem with a statement like this is that it doesn’t accomplish the goal for which it’s intended (to encourage your child to have his shoes on), and instead, it practically insists that the recipient go into his memory banks and find proof to the contrary. “That’s not true, I had my shoes on yesterday when it was time to go to the park!”

The word “always” works in much the same way. We can almost certainly find evidence to the contrary and our human nature dictates that we figure a way out of the imaginary box we’ve been placed in. In case you haven’t noticed, people hate to be pigeon holed. And yes, that most definitely includes toddlers and young children.

Almost as soon as I attempt to label a child, they seem to magically shed my label by acting in unexpected ways. She’s so sweet (but right now she’s pulling my hair), he’s a force to be reckoned with (but currently he’s snuggling in my lap), they never take a nap in the afternoon (except for today), she always loves her bath (but right now she’s screaming “no!” repeatedly).

As I’ve pondered this urge to label, quantify, and know for sure what to expect, I’ve realized that there are actually very few instances in which the words “always” and “never” are helpful either to move things forward or to discourage unwanted behaviors.

Even the old adage “Never talk to strangers.” Doesn’t really work for us. We often talk to so-called strangers, and since abuse is usually perpetrated by a person a child knows, that advice doesn’t seem as relevant as it was when I was a child.

I’ve even stopped saying “We never hit people,” because there’s this strange sport called boxing and there are martial arts, and occasionally we could be in real danger. So really, sometimes we do hit people. And since kids take things very literally, I try to be as accurate as possible when I communicate with them. Instead, I might say, “We don’t hit people or animals,” and if questioned further I will add, “unless we’re in real danger.”

This week begin to notice when the words “always” and “never” pop up and try to be as real and accurate as possible when you’re talking with the young people in your life.

And if these words do slip out (as they likely will) and you find yourself faced with a child who’s ready to launch into an argument on the subject, gently admit your mistake and move on. “Oh, you’re right, I forgot about that time!” Escalating things further by trying to convince them that you were mostly right won’t get you the results you’re looking for.

By the way, what are the results you’re looking for? Are you hoping for more cooperation? Or to get kids to help clean up? Or do you want them to take more responsibility for their belongings? I would love to know what you’re struggling with so that I can make future posts as relevant as possible to your needs.

Have a fantastic week, Shelly



I would love to have a list of the "do not use words". Unfortunately, I am sure I use some of them on a daily basis :(

AwakeShelly moderator

 @deemarie Well, you're not alone there Marie! I still use some of them too. But I'll work on creating a list for all of us. Thanks for asking!