Positive Reinforcements: 9 Things You Shouldn’t Say to Your Child
A parent who doesn’t crave an occasional break is a saint, a martyr, or someone who’s so overdue for some time alone she’s forgotten the benefits of recharging. Trouble is, when you routinely tell your kids, “Don’t bother me” or “I’m busy,” they internalize that message, says Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D., founder of the Ozark Center for Language Studies, in Huntsville, Arkansas. “They begin to think there’s no point in talking to you because you’re always brushing them off.” If you set up that pattern when your children are small, then they may be less likely to tell you things as they get older.
From infancy, kids should get in the habit of seeing their parents take time for themselves. Use pressure-release valves — whether signing up with a babysitting co-op, trading off childcare with your partner or a friend, or even parking your child in front of a video so that you can have half an hour to relax and regroup.
At those times when you’re preoccupied (or overstressed, as I was when I exploded at my girls), set up some parameters in advance. I might have said, “Mom has to finish this one thing, so I need you to paint quietly for a few minutes. When I’m done, we’ll go outside.”
Just be realistic. A toddler and a preschooler aren’t likely to amuse themselves for a whole hour.
Labels are shortcuts that shortchange kids: “Why are you so mean to Katie?” Or “How could you be such a klutz?” Sometimes kids overhear us talking to others: “She’s my shy one.” Young children believe what they hear without question, even when it’s about themselves. So negative labels can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thomas gets the message that meanness is his nature. “Klutzy” Sarah begins to think of herself that way, undermining her confidence. Even labels that seem neutral or positive — “shy” or “smart” — pigeonhole a child and place unnecessary or inappropriate expectations on her.
The worst ones cut dangerously deep. Many a parent can still vividly, and bitterly, remember when her own parent said something like “You’re so hopeless” (or “lazy” or “stupid”).
A far better approach is to address the specific behavior and leave the adjectives about your child’s personality out of it. For example, “Katie’s feelings were hurt when you told everyone not to play with her. How can we make her feel better?”
Variations: “Don’t be sad.” “Don’t be a baby.” “Now, now — there’s no reason to be afraid.” But kids do get upset enough to cry, especially toddlers, who can’t always articulate their feelings with words. They do get sad. They do get frightened. “It’s natural to want to protect a child from such feelings,” says Debbie Glasser, Ph.D., director of Family Support Services at the Mailman Segal Institute for Early Childhood Studies at Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale. “But saying ‘Don’t be’ doesn’t make a child feel better, and it also can send the message that his emotions aren’t valid — that it’s not okay to be sad or scared.”
Rather than deny that your child feels a particular way — when he obviously does — acknowledge the emotion up front. “It must make you really sad when Jason says he doesn’t want to be your friend anymore.” “Yes, the waves sure can be scary when you’re not used to them. But we’ll just stand here together and let them tickle our feet. I promise I won’t let go of your hand.”
By naming the real feelings that your child has, you’ll give him the words to express himself — and you’ll show him what it means to be empathetic. Ultimately, he’ll cry less and describe his emotions instead.
“Why Can’t You Be More Like Your Sister?”
It might seem helpful to hold out a sibling or friend as a shining example. “Look how well Sam zips his coat,” you might say. Or “Jenna’s using the potty already, so why can’t you do that too?” But comparisons almost always backfire. Your child is herself, not Sam or Jenna.
It’s natural for parents to compare their kids, to look for a frame of reference about their milestones or their behavior, say experts.
But don’t let your child hear you doing it. Kids develop at their own pace and have their own temperament and personality. Comparing your child to someone else implies that you wish yours were different.
Nor does making comparisons help change behavior. Being pressured to do something she’s not ready for (or doesn’t like to do) can be confusing to a little kid and can undermine her self-confidence. She’s also likely to resent you and resolve not to do what you want, in a test of wills.
Instead, encourage her current achievements: “Wow, you put both arms in your coat all by yourself!” Or “Thanks for telling me your diaper needs changing.”
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