My Seven Most Powerful Parenting Phrases

With Gabe being home all day every day this summer I’ve been thinking about what it takes to parent him – and to parent him well.  He can be the sweetest, funniest little guy until a switch suddenly flips and he becomes really difficult to parent!  I feel very fortunate that I chose to study education for my undergraduate degree; even though I decided to leave the teaching field my training doesn’t get very rusty.  Ironically, one of the main reasons I wanted to get out of teaching – the tediousness of classroom mangement – is one of the things I’m forced to work and rework every day, albeit on a much smaller scale!  Hmm…there might be some irony in there somewhere?

I know there are lots of things you can do to engage children, redirect them, and avoid conflict.  My list reflects a little of that.  But several of the items on my list are primarily directional/disciplinary, and I’m including them because they were such game-changers for me.  Until I stumbled onto them I found myself giving him consequence after consequence, but never really helping him make actual changes.  As I started to replace my reactions with some of these phrases I gradually noticed him making progress.  We still have our share of time outs/lost privileges, etc., but I think it’s less than it might have been otherwise.

I’m grateful for these things that help us through each day.  These are not novel techniques; I didn’t come up with any of them on my own.  There just the things I’ve picked up along the way that have been most helpful for me.  We’ll see how this list changes as Isla gets older and throws in her own curveballs!

1. “Are you going to do it or do you need help?”

I tend to fall toward the “gentle parenting” end of the spectrum, and this is a phrase I picked up there.  When I ask Gabe to do something and he doesn’t obey immediately, I try to remember that he’s still young and he’s still learning.  Sometimes he’s pokey not because he’s being defiant but because he doesn’t know how to fulfill my request or he doesn’t know how to disengage from his preferred activity.  I’ve found that offering help is a great way to encourage action on his part.  Sometimes he takes me up on it, but more often than not he says he’s going to do it (whatever my direction was) and gets to it quickly.

I don’t always use this, but sometimes I use it on things I know he can do, mainly because when he hears an offer of help I think it helps him realize that it’s important enough to me that I’m willing to participate.

2. “Why don’t you try that again?” Closely related to the “Let’s start over!”

For isolated incidents – especially those involving sassy talk – Tahd and I often just tell him to try again without the sassy words/sassy tone.  Sometimes this helps and sometimes it doesn’t; often it takes him three or more tries before he can ask his question or offer his response with appropriate words and without whining or fussing.  It can require a lot of patience, but I’m willing to put in the effort because the whining-weeping-wailing thing he sometimes showcases irks me much, much more.

3. Let me see your eyes.

It’s like the last act of defiance – knowing you’ve been caught, knowing you’re going to get scolded, but figuring if you have to endure it you don’t have to look at the person.  Drives. Me. Insane!  Gabe and I can get into little power plays over things, and as much as I don’t like the “Because-I’m-The-Parent” game, I do need him to understand authority and the importance of respecting it.  Recently I noticed he’s been looking away and refusing to make eye contact when he was in trouble, so I’ve started insisting upon seeing his eyes for the entire duration of our conversation.  If he purposefully looks away we start over.  I think he’s starting to learn that I value his undivided attention and that it’s important to show respect with your body language.

4. Can I do it, too?

This isn’t so much disciplinary, but I do think it has gone such a long way toward creating a positive energy between us.  I’m not someone who gets a lot of enjoyment out of play, especially with weapons and battles and all those aggressive games.  Gabe? He LOVES them!  I play them sometimes, but I try to take advantage of the opportunity to join him doing something else if I notice it.  I like LEGOs and painting, so if Isla’s cooperating I try to participate in little things with him to stay connected.

With all that has happened during the last few years I really struggled with staying engaged.  Now that I’m better I’m more available to him, except that a new baby requires a lot of energy and attention.  So I do my best to make sure we get a little time every day to maintain that contact.  I’m hopeful that we can continue to rebuild this bridge in our relationship.

5. I love the way you…

One of my favorite parenting books is by Alfie Kohn, a writer who has been very influential in shaping American schools.  An important issue he addresses is how parents praise children for being instead of doing.  This can sometimes become a manipulative game children adapt to because they develop distorted perceptions of how the world works and they start believing that praise is insincere, among other things. I’m a big fan of his work; I think children are pretty savvy in that they know when they’re being excessively praised for certain things.  On the other hand, I think children aren’t sophisticated enough to process the excessive bribes and praise effectively so they come to depend on them in unhealthy ways.  Rather than regularly praising a child for who s/he is, Kohn suggests changing the verbiage slightly so the praise starts with “I love the way you…”  Sometimes that includes praising Gabe for the way he constructs a particular LEGO piece or includes details in a certain painting.  Sometimes it includes pointing out a specific kind thing he does for Isla. I’m not crazy strict about it; I still love to tell him I think he’s the sweetest boy ever and other general things like that.  But I try to be purposeful about pointing out specifics because I think those are most meaningful and make the biggest impression.

As an aside, I recently read a blogger’s post about an article about child athletes.  In it, she talked about the importance of saying to your child, “I love watching you play.”  I think this advice falls along the same lines, and I think it’s something kids need to hear.  Check out the blog entry and the article here.

6. What was your high/medium/low today?

When Tahd and I went through marriage counseling several years ago, the counselors homework assignment was that we check in with each other once a day with this question.  Actually, I think we had a group of questions through which we rotated to keep it fun.  As Gabe has gotten older we’ve implemented a family check in, and at dinner each night we ask one another to share our highs, mediums, and lows from the day.  It used to just be highs and lows but Gabe wanted to throw in the mediums so we did.  I’m sure as time goes on we’ll develop some other check-in questions we enjoy, as well.  It’s such a wonderful way to touch base for the day, and I like that Gabe has a chance to see that events affect us emotionally.  When I was growing up I thought of my parents as stoic and unflappable; they were pretty even-keeled, but in retrospect I’m certain they had lots of emotions I never saw.  Obviously there are some facts, situations and emotions in me to which Gabe will never be privy, but I think it’s important for him to develop a general understanding that other people – including adults – have feelings which are affected by the happenings of life.

7. How could you have handled that differently?

I don’t know how I missed this for so long, but once we started asking Gabe this question we started seeing real progress.  It is such an important key for us!  How can I expect him to act differently in the future if we don’t rehearse appropriate choices?

We started using this question when he was hitting out of frustration; obviously, hitting is the last thing a mother wants her child to do, but when Gabe was overwhelmed and angry he used to really struggle to do anything other than hit.  It took quite a while of including this question in our post-hitting discussions, but we eventually saw him starting to implement some of the things we talked about.  It was an especially helpful question to encourage the development of verbal expression of difficult feelings, something that doesn’t come naturally to any of us in our family!


These are the top seven phrases that have helped me come into my own with parenting.  We’re not a family who’s big on behavior modification and reward charts, and being different from the norm has sometimes left me questioning if we were on the right track.  As we’ve stumbled into some of these techniques, however, I’ve become more and more sure that we are on the right track – for us – and that’s all that matters.  I’m always on the lookout for new ideas and approaches, though, and would love to know…

what is it that works for you when parenting isn’t at its easiest?

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  1. Great advice! I know others can benefit from your wisdom!

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