How to Sabotage Yourself as a Parent

I’m not a child development expert, nor do I have a Ph.D. after my name. I only have three children who are quite young, so I haven’t run the full gambit of parenting yet.  But over the years, I’ve noticed a pattern, not only in my own parenting, but in other families as well. I want to chat about those and offer some very basic, logic-based suggestions of how to make very small alterations to create big changes in your family. So below you’ll find a handful of ways to sabotage your parenting efforts, and an alternative method or phrase to gain better results.

1) “…Okay?”

If you are giving your child directions (like putting on their shoes), or asking them to do a required task (like a chore), why would you ask if it’s okay with them? Adding this little word at the end of your instruction takes away the authority you hold, and puts them in charge. They are people, and are entitled to choices, but only within the boundaries of reason, under their parents’ authority. Authority seems a strong word for a “peaceful parent” like myself, but keep this in mind: Your children must have someone older, wiser, and more mature to guide them and show them how to be a mature, wise grown-up. Without asserting some kind of authority (and I don’t mean being “authoritarian”), the child will not know which direction is right or wrong. There will be too much ambiguity and they will simply follow their [selfish] primal instincts, and will not learn how to control their temper, treat others with kindness, or–in the case of “…okay?”–learn how to brush their teeth or be responsible for their own things.

What to say instead: “Do you understand?” or “Understood?”

I think for the vast majority of the instances of “…okay?”, the parent is merely seeking acknowledgement. They are not actually asking the child if it’s okay; they are wanting the child to acknowledge that the child heard them. But what the child hears is, “Mom is unsure about this, and now she’s asking me if I’m okay with it. I’m not–I don’t want to clean up my toys!” So rather than inadvertently asking their permission, seek acknowledgement a more direct way, while maintaining your authority.

2) “Do you want…?” or “How about you…?”

Like “…okay?”, this phrase removes the parents’ authority and gives control to the child. Asking, “Do you want to flush the toilet?” or “How about you pick up your toys?” will give them too much of a choice. If it’s something you are requiring, don’t leave it up to them. However, if you really do want to give them a choice, like “Do you want to go to the park?” or “How about you color this picture?”, and you intend to leave it up to them, by all means, ask away!

What to say instead: “I’d like you to…” or “Please…”

You can still model good manners and prompt them politely, without ordering them around. I think that’s what’s at the root of the “Do you want…?” phrase. The parent doesn’t want to snap or order their child about, so they weaken their phrase to be gentler. But they weaken it just a little too much. Model the polite way of making a request, and if they don’t follow it, use a firmer voice and reiterate what you are requiring of them. For example, I’d say in a pleasant, happy voice, “Leah, I’d like you to clean up your room, please.” And if she doesn’t, I’d say in a firmer voice, “Leah, you need to clean up your room as I’ve asked you.” And if she still doesn’t comply? Well, that’s coming up next…

3) “Do you want a timeout?!?”

This opens you up to an empty threat. Asking the child if they want X or Y consequence seems like a good way to shock them into compliance. But not only is this just abrasive enough to put them into panic/defense mode, which will only escalate the situation, but it is just ambiguous enough that you could say it multiple times and each time, weaken your authority, and result in a string of empty threats.

What to say instead: “These are your choices.”

I had heard this basic concept a handful of times, but it was really driven home to me when I attended a special needs parenting workshop just recently. This gives your child the feeling of control, by giving them choices, but because you’re creating the options, you are still in authority. Here is an example of how this works. Leah has difficulty finishing her dinner. Sometimes she is unwilling to even taste something, or other times she will say she’s not hungry. When she uses the “I’m not hungry” excuse, we will tell her, “These are your choices: You can finish your dinner, and tomorrow you’ll get a snack after quiet time; or you can not eat your dinner, and you will not get a snack tomorrow, and you won’t eat anything else tonight.” And then we simply follow through with what we said. Another example is if she doesn’t want to pick out her clothes for the day. I’ll say, “I am going to do X task that I need to do, and when I get back, these are your choices: You can choose something while I do that, and start getting dressed, or you can let me choose your clothes when I’m done.”

Obviously the goal here is to tailor the choices so that the one you want them to do is more “attractive” than the other choice, so that they will be obedient and see the value in what you’ve asked them to do. This also shifts the “blame” of consequence to the child themselves. It was their choice and not the parent “being mean”. That was the choice they made, and they must live with that choice.

4) “Don’t be bad”, “Be good”, or “Stop being bad”

Any phrase that turns the child into the action will, like the empty threats mentioned above, put the child on the defensive. And though I feel very cheesy saying this, it’s also true that it will damage their self-image. If you keep calling them “bad”, they will start to think they are bad, and they will act on that. Children sometimes act badly or make foolish decisions. But turning that into a state of being puts the child into a position of feeling like they are always bad, and that hurts. Even telling them to “be good” has the implication that they aren’t currently “good”. Christians will say, “But there is no one good, according to the Bible!” Parents, I’m not talking about the term “good” as it pertains to holiness or salvation. I’m talking about the child’s perception, and how to have clearer conversation and more specific goals, in order to encourage cooperation and better behavior. And this is how:

What to say instead: “Please cooperate,” “Let’s make a better decision,” or “Treat them kindly”.

Focus on the action, rather than the state of being. Help the child to see the wise choice in that specific situation. Remove the verdict of “good” or “bad” child, and point out, instead, the action that the child should take. So if a child is acting out in a mean way towards another child, rather than tell them, “Stop being so naughty!”, you can say, “Oh no! I see you’re frustrated, but we can’t hit our friends. Let’s treat our friends kindly and use gentle hands.”

5) “Don’t…”

I’m sure you’ve heard it said that in order to encourage cooperation and cohesiveness, you ought to use “do” phrases rather than “don’t” phrases. Saying what a child should do brings about more cooperation and willingness to obey than pointing out what they shouldn’t do. It also closes the door on any “bad” behaviors you may have forgotten. An example of this? I have a sister who, as a child, would find the things that mom hadn’t specifically said were not allowed. Mom said no hitting or pinching, but didn’t say, for example, no licking. So she would lick me and my other sister. Or mom would say “Don’t touch your sister”, and what did she do? You guessed it! She would point at us, about an inch away, and claim, “I’m not touching you!” But emphasizing on the positive will both give you leeway to encompass all unwanted behaviors as the opposite of that behavior, and will encourage more compliance on the child’s part, as they will feel “empowered” to act rightly, rather than weight down by the list of “don’ts”.

What to say instead: “Please do…” or “Let’s…”

When I created a list of house rules, I endeavored to only say positive “to dos” rather than negative “don’ts”. So rather than saying “No hitting or kicking” (which still leaves room for pinching, biting, head-butting, and more), I say, “Treat one another kindly”. By saying this, I’m also opening up the umbrella to words and attitudes, and not just physical contact. Another positive phrase that is used frequently here is “Let’s calm down; let’s take some deep breaths…”. Adding “Let’s” turns it into a group effort. The child will feel more supported, and more eager to try, when they know you are doing it with them. Even better would be to acknowledge the child’s feelings–give them a name, with empathy–and then show them how to work through them. In the “calm down” example, I would first say, “I know you are frustrated that you’re not able to do that activity. It’s okay to feel frustrated, but it’s not okay to scream and hit things. Let’s take some deep breaths so you can calm down.” This has been infinitely more effective with Leah’s fits than yelling at her to “Quit it!” or “Be quiet!” or “Stop your fit!” I can’t say that I’m perfect and that I do that every time, BUT I know that it’s worked much better, and I am working towards changing my language and maintaining my calm when she gets into those modes.

I am certain there are many more types of phrases that parents say which sabotage their parenting efforts. But those were all I could think of at the moment, so I’ll leave it there. I hope you found some good tips on how to have more effective–and more pleasant–parenting.

What are some phrases or actions you’ve heard or seen that sabotage parents? What are some tips you could give that might encourage other readers to have a more positive parenting experience?

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2 Comments

  1. Diane Magnan said,

    February 9, 2014 at 4:27 pm

    When I was working in public schools with special needs kids, the teachers would say, “Johnny is walking to the door” or “Johnny is sitting down” to tell them what they wanted them to do. I asked why they said it in the 3rd person instead of asking them directly and they couldn’t give me an answer except, “That’s what we were taught to do.” Got any ideas on why they do that Grace? You’ve been around special needs classroom situations….have you noticed them doing that or not?

    • divinebabies said,

      February 9, 2014 at 7:13 pm

      Hmmm… Anna’s teachers don’t do that–they speak to her directly and typically use the “Let’s do this” phrasing (make it a collective/group activity). But the only reason I can think that they would use the third person phrasing is if the student has trouble understanding pronouns. That’s interesting.


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