Looking after a child is one of the most important things a person can do, but there’s no rule book for parents and carers to follow when it comes to the best ways to raise a youngster. There are always new things for parents to learn, as their child grows from baby to young child to the teenage years.
The job of a parent or carer is to guide a child and help them develop and grow, but there are always challenges along the way. For example, the adult may struggle with their child’s behaviour at some point, whether they are having a tantrum in a public place or simply won’t do what they’re asked. In these scenarios parents will often say certain phrases in an attempt to resolve the conflict. Often, they’re said with the best of intentions - but they may do more harm than good. At other times, certain phrases may be said by the adult out of concern for the child’s welfare or to try to protect them or even make them feel better, but again they could also be damaging.
So, just what are some of these phrases that parents simply shouldn’t say to children, no matter the good intentions? We’ve spoken to two experts in child behaviour to find out, who have also told us things that parents can say instead to get their feelings across to their child - and get them to cooperate.
‘Don’t be silly’
This is one of the worst things to say when your child is upset as it invalidates their feelings and could stop them from opening up to you in future, according to parent consultant Kirsty Ketley. Instead, she advises parents to show some empathy to their children and reassure them that things will be okay. She suggests parents could also ask what they can do to help and let youngsters know that they are there for them.
Kettley has a stark warning when it comes to this phrase. “Unless you want to harm your relationship with your children, don't ever tell them that they're stupid,” she says. She explains that part of the reason that calling a child stupid is so damaging is that they understand what the word means. As a result, she says it’s a “sure-fire way to make a child's self-esteem plummet”. If this phrase is repeated enough they will believe it. Instead, if your child does something without thinking or something that results in an accident or breakage, reassure them that we all make mistakes, she advises. Then, remind them of what they could have done to avoid the situation.
‘Big boys and girls don’t cry’
This phrase is unhelpful simply because it is untrue, says Ketley. She explains that not only do boys and girls of all ages cry, but that they should be allowed to feel that they can cry too. She adds: “Being brave doesn't mean that they cannot cry and it doesn't make them any less of a person.” Instead, parents should tell their children that it is okay to cry and it’s a natural reaction to emotion.
Parenting expert and mental health counsellor Emma Roberts says: “This gives the impression that if you cry then you’re weak, and then crying is seen as a negative, when in fact it is very healthy to cry and let our feelings and emotions out.”
‘Give them a hug or a kiss’
Children should not be forced to hug and kiss anyone they do not want to, including their own family members, Keltey advises. She says that although this phrase will be said with good intentions, parents should refrain from telling their children to give someone a hug or kiss as they may not want to and should instead give them a choice. She says this is also a helpful way of instilling the concept of consent from a young age by teaching them to ask first if it is okay to give someone a hug or kiss and then accepting that if they say no, that is okay.
‘You’re looking a bit chubby / skinny’
Ketley warns firmly that the use of any words associated with weight should not be used with children. “These words send a message that we think something is wrong with our children and could set them up to have an unhealthy image of their body, low self-esteem and an unhealthy relationship with diet and exercise.” Instead of making such comments, Ketley recommends that if parents have concerns about their child’s health they should model a healthy lifestyle for them to follow, which includes food and exercise.
Problems will happen in life and, just like everyone else, children will have obstacles to overcome. Worrying about such issues is a natural human reaction so it’s counterproductive for parents to tell children not to worry, even though in doing so they are only trying to reassure them. Instead, Ketley advises parents to acknowledge the problem they have and say “I am here for you", "it's okay to feel that way", "I'm listening to you" or " you can talk to me".
‘Let me do it’
Parents may want to do something for children to help them, but if a child wants to do something themselves - and it’s safe for them to do so - this should be encouraged. Ketley says that if a parent still wants to help their child in an activity they should say “let’s do it together".
‘Is that okay?’ (in certain situations)
Parents should not ask their child if it's okay to do something that is non-negotiable, as it suggests there’s a choice when there actually isn’t, says Ketley. For example, instead of saying "it's time for bed, okay?" parents should just state “it's bedtime".
‘Children should be seen and not heard’
Roberts explains that this traditional saying is problematic because it can make children think that they don’t have a voice, and in turn this can then make them keep their feelings hidden.
This can obviously be very upsetting for a child to hear. Roberts acknowledges that there are times when a parent may need their child to be quiet, but there are better ways to let them know this. For example, if a child is trying to speak to a parent and they’re already in conversation with someone, an alternative thing to say to them would be ‘I’m just talking, we can speak about this after”.
‘Don’t tell daddy/mummy’
Children shouldn’t be told to keep things from their parents, says Roberts, as this can create great anxiety for them. She adds that this is not good for the child as they would then be responsible for trying to keep a secret that they may not want to keep.
‘Don’t leave the table until you eat all your dinner’
This phrase may be said with the child’s best interests at heart, but kids need to have control around what they eat, believes Roberts. She adds: “If you are controlling how much food your child eats, this can have the opposite effect on the child.” Instead, she said, you could say “you haven’t eaten much, could you try and eat two more mouthfuls, otherwise you will be hungry later” to show you care about their welfare.
‘Do as I say, or else’
Roberts says using this phrase is an outright threat that should be avoided by parents or carers. She explains: “Sometimes children do have to do things that they don’t want to do, but I find that if you give them a choice and make it more of a balanced conversation then you get a better response.” For example, a parent may say “we need to brush your teeth before you go to bed, otherwise your teeth will get dirty and we don’t want that, we want your teeth to be strong”.
‘If you do that again I’m going to take your toys away’
This is another phrase that’s essentially a threat, according to Roberts, and although in some instances it may be effective it’s not the best thing to say. She adds: “It’s better to get a child to do something without using punishing words and threats.” Instead, a parent may say “if you don’t put your coat on we won’t be able to go out as it’s very cold. We can stay here till you decide to put it on.”