As a former English teacher and current writer, I care a lot about words. The language we use with our kids holds a lot of power, especially when they’re young. Parenting writer and educator Peggy O’Mara put it this way: “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” I’m not gonna lie: this idea gave me some anxiety when I first came across it. So much pressure! But I’ve since learned to think of it in a different way: our parenting work matters immensely. Our words to our children are shaping them as human beings. What an opportunity!
I’m no expert on parenting: I have no early childhood education or psychology degree, and my kids are only 2 and 4. I don’t claim to have all the parenting answers (lol, please). Like life, raising kids is trial and error, and we’ll never figure it all out. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn and be intentional in our parenting. I remember reading once about the absurdity of how much we think and research and before we do something like purchase a new car, but we typically don’t give a fraction of that time or effort when we’re about to become responsible for human lives. No, we’ll never be perfect, and yes, every child is different. Still, we can learn things that will make a difference.
Something I think I do bring to the parenting game (especially the toddler parenting game) is my experience as a middle school teacher. Middle schoolers are a lot like toddlers—going through incredible growth and experimenting with what it means to have newfound skills and independence. I always tell people that a picture of teaching middle school is having a kid sass you in the morning and want to hold your hand in the afternoon. Like toddlers, I tell you! Here are three things I’ve learned about communicating with kids from being a teacher.
Use few words. It’s ideal to use as few words as possible when you’re speaking to your kids, especially if giving directions (which, let’s face it, a lot of the time that’s what we’re doing). If we don’t want our kids to tune us out, we need to be direct and precise with our language. I’ll never forget the time my colleague, a special education teacher, gave me some… uh… feedback on the directions I had just given the class. She wrote down word-for-word what I said, and I was horrified. It was jumbled and confusing. And words, so many words. It was a stark reminder to be concise if we want kids to listen. It’s “Please put on your jacket” versus “Hey, I really need you to get your jacket on right now, you need to get ready, okay? Hurry up or we’re going to be late. Get your coat.” Few. Words.
Validate feelings. Kids have lots of feelings, and when they sense we understand their feelings, they feel supported and loved. (Note: this also applies generally to humans.) Validating isn’t agreeing or giving in. Here’s what it looks like. Toddler: “I don’t WANT to wear my jacket!” Parent: “I hear you. You don’t wanna wear your jacket.” It doesn’t mean we have to change anything about the situation or our requests; it just means we’re acknowledging their feelings. We’re saying “I’ve heard you. I understand how you feel about that.” It’s also helpful to explicitly teach emotion words to toddlers. When they have language for what they’re experiencing, it helps them in many ways. You can teach them emotional vocabulary of all kinds: my oldest enjoys saying frustrated, curious, and hurt my feelings.
Explain your reasoning. Kids have a very acute sense of justice and fairness. You want them to see that you’re always considering their perspective. This is why it can be helpful to expand on the reason(s) for the direction. “I hear you. You don’t want to wear your jacket. But it’s actually pretty chilly out today, and I don’t want you to get cold. So you need to wear it. You can always take it off if the sun comes out.” I’ve found that once you do this enough, you won’t have to do it as often, because kids then know you’re always thinking of them and taking their feelings and opinions into consideration when you’re making requests of them.
If you have toddlers, you know that they’re listening closely to what you say. They’re learning language at every turn, and while that’s a great thing, it’s also kind of stressful (we’ve had to dial back the swearing around here, that’s for sure.)
Here are some specific suggestions around language I’ve implemented with my own two little ones. These have worked wonders for me. Take what might work for you; leave what sounds crazy: you’re doing a great job!
Try not to say “be careful.” This is such a default phrase for us to utter, isn’t it? After all, keeping the small humans alive and safe is our basic responsibility. But if you think about it, this phrase is unhelpful. First of all, it’s vague. What does it mean to be careful? Second, it doesn’t communicate trust in our children’s abilities or decision-making, and instead sends a message of doubt or worry. Find your own replacements according to your own kids. Mine have been “watch your body” and “pay attention.” Or specific feedback according to what they’re doing, like “please stay on the side by this white line” (I have an enthusiastic little balance biker).
Do away with “okay?”. This is a tiny change, but it can help reduce arguments and power struggles. Kids are very literal, and they listen carefully to the words we’re saying. So when we end a sentence with “okay?” they tend to think we’re actually asking them if it’s okay with them. If you say, “You need to put on your shoes, okay?” and they don’t want to, you’re inviting a response of resistance. No, they might think. It’s not okay. Instead, just remove the word: “Please put on your shoes.”
The magic sentence: “Looks like you need some help.” I think this is something I gleaned from Janet Lansbury, a brilliant writer, and thinker in the respectful parenting world. When you ask a small child to do something and they aren’t complying, there’s no need to threaten or punish. Instead, you can say, calm and unfazed, “Oh, looks like you need some help” (or the question version, “Do you need some help?”). You’re holding the expectation but in a gentle and respectful way. And the brilliant twist is this: kids increasingly want to be independent, so usually once you start to move toward them to help them meet the request, they’ll jump to doing it themselves. I use this almost daily.
Teach them the phrase “change your mind.” This is something I came up with randomly, and I’ve been surprised at how useful it is. Sometimes it seems to me like we expect toddlers to act even better than adults. Adults change their minds all the time—about what to wear, what they want to eat, what they’d like to do—so we need to give kids that permission, too. I started saying to my oldest: “Oh, did you change your mind?” when she was finicky with choices, and she’s taken to it so easily. She, herself, now often says, “I changed my mind.” This is also useful for us as parents. Sometimes we change our minds about what we tell our children, and that’s okay. If the language is normalized, then we too are free to say it. “I know we said we could go to the park, but I thought more about it and I changed my mind. We need to get home for dinner. We can go to the park tomorrow.”
Teach them to express their emotional needs. Teaching kids to recognize and say what they need seems like a really important skill since it’s something many of us adults (myself included) don’t seem to have an easy time doing. I know from my own personal growth work that I act out when I’m feeling unloved. I’m not my best self. So one day I had a conversation with my eldest and told her that if she needs some love, she should just tell me. It worked. Just today, she said, “Mom, I want you to love on me.” I stopped what I was doing to hug and be with her for a moment. This little thing solves so much. And again, you can use the language, too. I’ve noticed that I really struggle with my kids “hanging” on me—tugging my shirt, my legs, you know. So when they’re touching me all the time or acting crazy, I throw it out there: “Do you guys need some love?,” and often after a big hug they’re off to play.
You can get specific here, too. I’ve recently started talking about “alone time” as my oldest gets older, explaining that sometimes we just need time by ourselves. I’ve been saying more and more “Do you need some alone time?” when she starts to get fresh with her little sister (which has been happening a LOT with how much time they’ve spent together the last few months). She’s been saying it herself now, too: “I need some alone time.”
Parenting is sacred work. C.S. Lewis said, “Children aren’t a distraction from more important work. They are the most important work.” I’ve had that written on my kitchen whiteboard for a while now, and it helps me when I’m tempted to feel like I’m “not getting anything done.” When you’re interacting intentionally with your kids, you’re actually doing a lot. You’re literally shaping minds and hearts. It can seem trite, but really, what better way to impact the world for good.
And don’t get it twisted: I’m not over here being perfectly patient and using all these ideas all the time. I’m trying and failing and trying again just like everyone else. I’m thinking of all the parents out there that have been with their kids much more than ever over the past few months. I’m with you, I see you, and what you’re doing matters. You got this.