How We Talk to Our Kids


I’ve spent a lot of my adult life with little kids. I was blessed with three kids of my own, and now I am the daycare provider for my two grandchildren.

In between those lucky adventures, I’ve also been a teacher, a speech pathologist and a babysitter for a few extra kids.

I’ve been to dozens of professional development classes, countless meetings about child development and a ton of visits with friends and their kids.

In all that time, I’ve learned a lot.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the way we talk to our kids. I’ve been paying attention to what we adults say to our children in everyday interactions.

I’m not impressed, truthfully.

Let me put it this way. Let’s pretend that the words we say to our kids every day were said to us instead.

Pretend that you are about to head off for a day at work. You’ve showered, dressed, eaten breakfast, grabbed your work bag. You embrace your spouse for a kiss goodbye, and hear them say, “Now you be a good person today.”

Huh?

Wouldn’t you think, “Wait a minute! Do you think that I’m NOT a good person?”

What if you were about to head off to a meeting, and you heard your boss say, “Be a good listener. Don’t give the presenter any trouble!”

You would be furious, I have no doubt. But you’d also probably feel pretty damn insecure. You’d ask yourself, “Why does my boss think I’m going to be a bad listener and a troublemaker?”

We do this to our kids all the time.

All. The. Time.

As parents drop kids off at daycare, school, music classes, swim class, they most often kiss the little one and then give a warning. “Be a good boy today!” or “You listen to your teacher!”

When they pick those children up after a day of playing with friends, most parents ask, “Were you a good girl today?”

We do this because we feel like it’s required. We feel like this is the right way to help our children become responsible adults.

But it isn’t.

Instead of giving our children the idea that we suspect them of bad behavior every day, why don’t we give them the message that we trust them and believe in them?

I think of my son-in-law, who brings his two toddlers to me every day. He never tells them to be good. Instead, he kisses them, tells them that he loves them, and says, “Have fun today!”

The message to those kids is this: I know that you’re a wonderful person. I know that you will be as kind and as thoughtful as any toddler. My wish for you is a day of fun and happiness.

It isn’t about obedience. It isn’t asking children to behave well in all settings.

It gives kids a happy, hopeful, self-affirming message.

So how about this, just as a suggestion.

As we drop our little ones off at daycare/preschool/kindergarten, why don’t we say something like this:

“Have a fun day, honey! I’m so proud of what a great listener you are! I can’t wait to hear about how you shared with your friends today!”

The way that we talk to our children shapes their views of themselves. It shapes their belief in our expectations. Our words truly do shape the people that our children will become.

I am reminded of my very last school field trip. I was one of three fifth grade teachers taking our students to Olde Sturbridge Village. As the bus pulled up to the entrance, I stood in the aisle at the front of the bus.

“Boys and girls,” I said, “I hope that you all have a wonderful time today. I wanted to tell you that I am so proud to be your teacher. You are a great group of kids, so kind and so respectful. I’m so lucky to have a class that I know will impress all of the adults here. Go and have fun!”

One of the Mom’s on the trip turned to me with wide eyes, and said, “Wow. Even I want to be good just to make you proud! That was genius!”

But it wasn’t.

It was common sense.

We all want to hear good things about ourselves. We want our spouse to tell us, “Have a great day, honey!” We want our boss to say, “I’m glad you’re the one going to this meeting.”

We believe what people tell us about ourselves, especially when we are only babies, taking our first tentative steps out into the wide world.

Let’s stop warning our kids and telling them that we don’t trust them. Let’s tell them that we trust them to be the wonderful people we know they can be.

23 thoughts on “How We Talk to Our Kids

      • Love that boy. He got a “rave” review from the Captain Lord Mansion up here in Kennebunkport where he worked this summer. Ambitious boy, he’s only 15 and had his first summer job while most other 15-year-olds were sleeping in and playing video games. He had to be there at 7 a.m. and helped set tables for breakfast, serve guests, clean up and do dishes. Made good $$ and learned a lot, I think. His reference says….”Jack was on time and dressed professionally for work…he reported to his supervisor..and (best part) “His friendly smile was an asset to the Inn.” Lisa, who helps me with cleaning since I am 75 and still working, helped him get the job and was very impressed with his friendly manner and willingness to go above and beyond (he even helped wash windows)…Yesterday I got a text from him asking for my support for a fundraiser for ABRHS Hockey…he signed it “love you.” He’s a keeper.

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      • He sure is! I am not even a little bit surprised to hear that the Inn loved having him. That smile, that charm, that open spirit. He is such a great kid!!! Send me the fundraiser info, I’m in!!

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  1. Honestly, I never said that to my daughter. If she was on a play date I would say did you say thank you, but I just assumed she would be respectful and kind because that’s what I try to be (though some days more successfully than others) and I would prompt her to say please, but that’s about it

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  2. LOVED THIS!! ESP as we deal with “mishaps” at school, kids will be kids and boys do get rough but I’ve been struggling with ways to send my little man into the world ready to stand up for himself without bodily actions, be brave enough to ask for help and with the knowledge that he’s loved no matter what.. def chewing this one over and over today- THANK YOU!!

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    • It’s funny, but I keep noticing lately how differently the world at large responds to boys vs girls. I can remember recently hearing a little girl complain that her toy broke; she got instant sympathy from the adults around her. A little boy did the same thing (to the same toy) ten minutes later and the first response was, “What did you do?” Hard to change our ways….!

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