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?

The Years Are Short

It hit me afresh last night.

These days?

Are not going to last forever.

I love them.

This and That

I have random bits to catch up on tonight…

I made a reading list of the books I possess that I haven’t yet read. I divided them out into the ones I really, really want to read and the ones I’ll be happy to get to at some point. On my “Must Read” list? Twenty six. I have twenty six books I reallyreallyreally want to read.  Love me some books {apparently}!  My favorites so far? The Mysterious Benedict Society series (for kids but really interesting… a little Harry Potterish but not quite as mystical), Expressive Photography and If You Want To Write. Next week I’ll have new favorites, but that’s just how it goes!

On Tuesday the kindergarteners went on their second field trip of the year – bowling! They had recently completed a unit in gym class about bowling and the teachers thought it would be a fun thing to do during Easter week. I got to chaperone, and what fun!  We had lots of adults, each taking a few children to a lane. I think everyone in my lane bowled either a spare or a strike at some point during the morning.  Which – let’s be honest – is probably better than I would have done!

Gabe also had a doctor’s appointment that afternoon at which he was to get a shot. We have chosen to delay immunizations, and this was only the second one he’s had – probably the first one he’ll remember.  He was so brave!  It was amazing! The nurse positioned him carefully so we could each play a part in restraining him. Then she gave him a stern lecture about flinching. She needn’t have worried, though, because he didn’t budge – not even the tiniest bit!  I was very impressed!  I think it helped that he’s seen me give myself (and helped Tahd give me) a lot of shots, so they’re not that scary.  I guess there’s an upside to injectable fertility medication?

Afterward I suggested we stop at the store and get a little treat. I was thinking candy, but he’d been gobbling up the candy he got at his school’s Easter party, and once I saw him in Target I nixed the candy idea.

Somehow, Target succeeded in beating me out of $25 more than I intended to spend on a “little” present.

You have to watch out for those Target marketers.  They’re sneaky!

Gabe’s last day of school before spring break was Tuesday, so we’ve been having wild times since then.

Actually, I woke up with a headache on Wednesday morning, one that quickly progressed into a flashing-lights-nausea-throbbing-headache sort of migraine. Gabe, excited by the novelty of being home during a weekday, was content to play while I “slept” on the couch.  Note: this is what your child will eat while you’re resting on the couch with a migraine…

Yes, that’s a bowl full of ice cream sprinkles.

Yes, he took full advantage of my plight. 😉

We also did a few Easter-related things. We’re attempting to grow wheatgrass.  Did you know you can grow it in paper towel with no soil at all?

Gabe rehearsed for the rock concert he intended to perform when our family was together.  It was quite a concert.

That’s his fierce face. Lately he’s telling me that everything is “fierce!” <insert snarl>

And then it was Easter weekend! My family was all together and we celebrated the 30th birthday of one of my brothers-in-law.  I made the “cake,” which was actually an apple pie.

Nom nom nom!

Happy birthday, Corey!

Then it was Easter basket time.  I decided Gabe didn’t need any extra candy, so I bought absolutely none of it for his Easter basket. Instead, I bought a bunch of little toys. The idea sounded good in my head, but when I actually filled the basket I realized it was more like a Christmas basket. It was just full of a lot of toys!


Toward the end of the week I realized that I wanted to have something that reminded me of Mara for Easter. I had seen instructions on The Handmade Home for simple stuffed animals and thought I’d add a few more to our collection so Mara’s owl would have some company.

They both turned out a little differently and I think they’re fun. They’re especially soft, too, since their bodies are made with a minky fabric and they both have some flannel on them, too.  FYI – I didn’t measure a thing; I just eyeballed everything. And I sort of combined all the instructions she gives; so even though she gives instructions for 2 types of animals, I rolled them all up into one. Perhaps this is why I think they look more like pandas with floppy ears???

Gabe named his Fuzzy, I think.  I suggested Erma for mine, but Gabe didn’t like it.  Any suggestions?

Then it was Easter! My mom made a delicious dinner for our family…

Isn’t she cute?

And we mostly spent the day around the house. It was pretty low-key. Except for Gabe, who bounced off walls most of the time.

At one point he asked to take pictures, so I let him.  I love this picture.

Gabe wanted a picture of his orange Easter egg, but he wanted Mom to hold it up REALLYREALLY high! She’s doing her best, and I love how you can just barely see her and Kayla, trying hard to hold back their giggles!

Gabe also wanted to use my sewing machine, so I helped him make a small pillow.

You might think those ovals represent Easter eggs, but they don’t. They’re Mighty Beans. Which completely frustrate Tahd because they cost all of about $0.02 to make, yet they mark it up something like 5000% and sell them for a dollar each.

I feel a little more caught up now! 🙂  At least on my blogging. I still have 26 books to read…

And Tahd Smiles (but not too big because he just had a tooth extracted)

All week Tahd and I have been planning to take Gabe to an open house at a local astronomy observatory.  Having been something we’ve never experienced before we thought it might be fun, and Gabe has an affinity for all things science.  Thank you, Phineas and Ferb!  Tahd did his fatherly duty of keeping it a secret throughout the week, all while teasing Gabe with cryptic hints that frustrated and humored him.


We got to Friday and found nothing but overcast skies and angry rainclouds with a sprinkling of thunder and lightning.  In other words, less-than-ideal telescope conditions.  Boo!  So we revealed the surprise and its disappointment and gave Gabe three alternatives – going to a movie, hanging out at Chuck E. Cheese, and having a family game night.  Guess what he said?

“Are those all the options?  What about farm things? I really like farm things!”

So Tahd and I consulted.  It’s a little cold for any farm events, and the pounding rain and driving wind (um, hello wind advisory?) pretty much sealed the deal on anything in the Great Outdoors.  Lucky for us, Tahd works for a company in the agriculture industry and told Gabe we could go to his work and look at farm equipment. And that?  Is what he picked.

Tahd definitely smiled.

But, as I said, not too big because he had a tooth extracted today.  A really infected, really painful tooth that rendered him unable to chew, swallow, or even open his mouth.  Fun, right?  And he’s got a slightly giant swollen lump on his neck just below his jaw.  It’s right below the edge of the computer screen.  Convenient framing. 🙂

He wasn’t nearly as cranky as he looked – which is to his credit given the incredible joys of a tooth abscess!  We stopped off at our favorite destination – Barnes and Noble – between dental appointments, which was a fun little afternoon date.

We spent most of the day doing oral surgery types of things, which was a new experience for me because I never had any wisdom teeth.  Tahd teases me that I must not be very wise, but today the dentist said eventually no one will have wisdom teeth, so I’ve decided I must be genetically advanced. Tahd didn’t laugh at my joke, but I’m attributing that to his pain killers and stuff.  He’s clearly unable to fully comprehend my impressive humor.

But back to the farm stuff… I think one of my most favorite things to observe in my son is him imitating his dad.  We went to Tahd’s classroom where Gabe relished the opportunity to pretend we were his students while he illustrated his specialized tractor and said things like, “Please hold your questions until I’m done.”

See?  It’s an 1107. Not sure what the squiggly line is on the windshield.

Tahd and I cast furtive sideways glances at one another while we stifled giggles, enjoying every minute of our son’s mastery of bossiness.  Or at least I was – Tahd was probably distracted by the teeniest smidge of pain.  The look of delight in Gabe’s eyes while he scrutinized each piece of machinery and asked sharp questions left me with a contented smile on my face and in my heart.


We haven’t had the easiest week together; Gabe has been a little punchy and quick with the backtalk, and I’ve been a little impatient and overtired.  But tonight we existed in harmony and even had a little fun together, and it was refreshing.


On Growing

It caught me by surprise today, sort of like the way you walk unobservantly by a tree every day until one day its blooms stop you dead in your tracks, in awe of the wondrous flowers that have burst forth, shocking you into awareness with their very existence.  I was shocked into awareness today, but not by flowers.

Gabe is growing up.

Tahd came home last night, just before the wee hours of the morning dawned.  Gabe, tucked fast asleep inside our cozy bed, was oblivious to his return until this morning, when he popped awake like a jack-in-the-box, ready to START THE DAY!!! with mad energy – energy that came, I’m sure, from his excitement over the fact that his dad was laying beside him.

Today was a regular day, with dental appointments and school and errands and cleaning, all made better by the fact that Daddy was here, at least for a few days.  As such, Tahd found himself with a little shadow as Gabe tagged along behind him for his various chores – in the kitchen, in the dining room, up the stairs, down the stairs.  As Gabe came up from the basement ahead of Tahd, he tripped on the top step and slipped down a few on his shins.

A yelp and big tears tore at my mama heart and I rushed to the stairs to scoop up my baby.

And then? It happened.

I felt it – this giant human, this heavy person who was once my baby.  I could hardly lift him up. Now, I know things have changed a little bit around here; what were once arms of (moderate) 😉  muscle and strength have become a little more soft and gentle.  But to be practically unable to pick him up?  Caught me by surprise.  And it reminded me… at some point,  I will have picked him up for the very last time because I simply won’t be able to pick him up anymore.  When will that be?  Was it tonight?  Certainly not – I’ll at least be sure to pick him up again tomorrow, just because I can.  But it’s coming, and I guess it’s not so far off.

A little later, I saw this…

Tahd had fallen asleep on the couch, and Gabe had found his way into the crook of Tahd’s arm.  And there he stayed for the next 30 minutes while Tahd slept and Gabe watched Garfield.  And once again, all was right in my world.  My days of lifting and carrying my “baby” may be numbered, but doesn’t this look like a little piece of heaven?

I’ll take it.

So many times in life, I’ve lost what I thought of as the good, the beautiful, the lovely – the things that strengthen my heart and make me smile.  It’s scary to look ahead and know that loss is inevitable. When I look ahead and can only see the loss, sometimes it paralyzes me. But time and time again I’m reminded that loosening our grip on what we currently possess frees us to embrace the new and the good, which sometimes turn out to be the new and the better.

What it has never been? The new and the awful. It might have begun as new and difficult or even new and gut-wrenching, but it has always worked its way into new and very, very precious.  I have to remember this while I watch Gabe grow. The breathtaking days of babyhood give way to the charming days of toddlerhood, give way to the intrepid days of preschool, give way to the precious days of youth…  We miss the familiarity and grace of the days we leave behind, but we’re greeted by blessing that’s not always apparent until we fully let go and embrace the new day, the new stage, the new way.

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