The Parent-Teacher-Child Connection: What you say sometimes isn't what kids hear

Thursday, May 3, 2012

What you say sometimes isn't what kids hear

"Watch your tongue!" How many times did I hear that when I was growing up?  More than I can count.  Apparently I had a rather acerbic tongue and my mother found it rather objectionable.  What I heard was, "See how your tongue forms the words you say."  That's not quite the message that my mother wanted to get across, so that's probably why she had to keep saying the same thing over and over.  Maybe if she had said something like "The words you just said hurt me," I might have thought twice about saying them again.  Here are some other misconstrued messages you might give your children:

What you say: "I don't care about..."
What they hear: "I care more about what I'm doing right now than about what you want to tell me."  Kids have agendas that parents don't understand.  They might want to tell you about the snake skin they found in the back yard or about the picture they just drew of the dream they had.  If you're too busy and tell them you don't care what they're saying, they are unlikely to come to you when they are older and have more life-threatening tidbits to share with you. Listen to your children, no matter how insignificant their stories may seem to you.  To the children who are telling them to the person they love most, they are very important.
What you should say instead: "I don't have time right now.  Come back in a few minutes after I finish this phone call and you can tell me all about it."  Your child will likely wait patiently by the phone, anxiously holding his picture or snake skin until you're ready to give your undivided attention.

What you say: "I'll think about it"
What they hear: "That'll never happen!"  I know it's a cop out and I've used it myself when I wanted more time to figure out a way to say no :-)  However, when you tell a child you'll think about their request and then deny it time after time after time, "I'll think about it" becomes an instant no.  In fact, if you say that enough, kids won't come to you with reasonable requests anymore.  They'll simply go out and do whatever they want anyway because they know they'll get a negative response. Not good!
What you should say instead:  "Let's talk about it."  That way you will understand the child's motivation and he will understand yours.  That's the best way to reach a mutual agreement and compromise. 

What you say: "Tell him you're sorry."
What they hear: "I have to lie and say I'm sorry even if I'm not!"  You, the adult, knows that a child should apologize when she wrongs someone else.  I remember when my oldest daughter konked her great-grandmother over the head with a yardstick.  It was unintentional, but it probably hurt, both physically and emotionally.  At the time, if I had told her to say she was sorry, only the words would have come out of her mouth.  The feeling would have remained in her heart.
What you should say instead: "What can you do or say to make her feel better about what you did?" Whenever possible, put the apology ball back in your child's court.  Let him or her decide what needs to be done.  That internalizes the feelings.  You might be surprised by what your child does after she breaks another child's toy (or beats her grandma with a yardstick!).  What did my daughter do?  She gave Grandma a hug, told her she was sorry, and then put the yardstick back where it belonged.  Kids will usually do the right thing when left to their own resources.

Now that you've got the idea, think about other things that you say to your children and then think about how they might be misinterpreted.  And remember to keep what you say positive.  Don't is an invisible word.  So when you tell your child, "Don't pull the cat's tail," the Don't disappears and the child only hears "Pulll the cat's tail!"  What should you say instead? "If you want to pull something, go pull your wagon.  Leave the cat alone." What we say to our children impacts them more than what we do for them sometimes.

Happy parenting!


  1. For the apology force... What if they don't want to. They know what they should say, but are still angry or stubborn and won't say it. Ideas?

    1. You are right - sometimes kids are rather stubborn at times! I would not force the child to apologize because that defeats the purpose. Instead, both of you should give the issue some time - a few hours or a day. Then talk about something he or she can do that is good for the person he or she wronged. Also, sometimes children are too shy to actually say they are sorry. In that case, if the child can write, a letter would be good; if he can't write a picture would work.

      Happy Parenting!


Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog