Believe it or not, these everyday phrases may do more harm than good.
You probably wouldn’t use old-school phrases like “Wait until your father gets home” or “I wish you were more like your sister” with your kids, but there are lots of things that you should avoid saying to your child, for their sake and yours.
1. “Great Job.”
Research has shown that tossing out a generic phrase like “Good girl” or “Way to go” every time your child masters a skill makes them dependent on your affirmation rather than their own motivation, says Parents advisor Jenn Berman, Psy.D., author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids. Save the kudos for when they’re truly warranted, and be as specific as you can. Instead of “Super game,” say, “That was a nice assist. I like how you looked for your teammate.”
2. “Practice Makes Perfect.”
It’s true that the more time your child devotes, the sharper his skills will become. However, this adage can ramp up the pressure he feels to win or excel. “It sends the message that if you make mistakes, you didn’t train hard enough,” says Joel Fish, Ph.D., author of 101 Ways to Be a Terrific Sports Parent. Instead, encourage your child to work hard because he’ll improve and feel proud of his progress.
3. “You’re Okay.”
When your child scrapes their knee and bursts into tears, your instinct may be to reassure them that they’re not badly hurt. But telling them they’re fine may only make them feel worse. “Your kid is crying because they are not okay,” says Dr. Berman. Your job is to help them understand and deal with their emotions, not discount them. Try giving your child a hug and acknowledging what they’re feeling by saying something like, “That was a scary fall.” Then ask whether they’d like a bandage or a kiss—or both.
4. “Hurry Up!”
Your child dawdles over their breakfast, insists on tying their own sneakers (even though they haven’t quite mastered the technique yet), and is on pace to be late for school… again. But pushing them to get a move on creates additional stress, says Linda Acredolo, Ph.D., coauthor of Baby Minds. Soften your tone slightly and say, “Let’s hurry,” instead. This sends the message that the two of you are on the same team.
5. “I’m On a Diet.”
Watching your weight? Keep it to yourself. If your child sees you stepping on the scale every day and hears you talk about being “fat,” they may develop an unhealthy body image, says Marc S. Jacobson, M.D., professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at Nassau University Medical Center, in East Meadow, New York.
6. “We Can’t Afford That.”
It’s easy to use this default response when your child begs you for the latest toy, but doing so sends the message that you’re not in control of your finances, which can be scary for kids, says Jayne Pearl, the author of Kids and Money. Choose an alternative way to convey the same idea, such as, “We’re not going to buy that because we’re saving our money for more important things.” If they insist on discussing it, you have a perfect window to start a conversation about how to budget and manage money.
7. “Don’t Talk to Strangers.”
This is a tough concept for a young child to grasp. Even if a person is unfamiliar, they may not think of them as a stranger if they’re nice. Plus, kids may take this rule the wrong way and resist the help of police officers or firefighters whom they don’t know, says Nancy McBride, executive director for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Florida Regional Office, in Lake Park. Instead of warning them about strangers, bring up scenarios, like “what would you do if a man you don’t know offers you candy and a ride home?”, and have them explain what they’d do. Once you know how they’d handle the situation, you can guide them to the proper course of action.
8. “Be Careful.”
Saying this while your child is balancing on the monkey bars actually makes them more likely to fall. “Your words distract them from what they’re doing,” says Deborah Carlisle Solomon, author of Baby Knows Best. If you’re feeling anxious, move close to spot them in case they take a tumble, being as still and quiet as you can.
9. “No Dessert Unless You Finish Dinner.”
Using this expression increases a child’s perceived value of the treat and diminishes his enjoyment of the meal itself, says Parents advisor David Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D., director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital and author of Ending the Food Fight. Tweak your message along these lines: “First we eat our meal and then we have dessert.” The wording change, though subtle, has a far more positive impact on your child.
10. “Let Me Help.”
When your child is struggling to build a block tower or finish a puzzle, it’s natural to want to give them a hand. Don’t. “If you jump in too soon, that can undermine your child’s independence,” says Myrna Shure, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology at Drexel University in Philadelphia and author of Raising a Thinking Child. Instead, ask guiding questions to help him solve the problem: “Do you think the big piece or the little one should go at the bottom? Why do you think that? Let’s give it a try.”