The buzzer sounded in the gym in Melbourne, Florida, and the basketball game was over. Even though 12-year-old C.J. Givens’s team had lost, his aunt Melanie was ecstatic. C.J. had scored every single one of his team’s 24 points — including a couple of three-pointers. As he loped over to his family waiting in the bleachers, the hugs and compliments started flying: “You were awesome!” “Way to hustle for all those points!” Then C.J.’s aunt said, “Now, if you could just help your teammates play as well as you do, you guys would be unstoppable!”
“What do you mean?” C.J. said defensively. “I did the best I could! What didn’t I do right?” His aunt couldn’t understand the boy’s reaction. She’d just finished showering him with praise.
“The message C.J. got was that he didn’t do enough,” explains child psychologist Vicki Panaccione, PhD, founder of the Better Parenting Institute in Melbourne. “His aunt was telling him he was so fabulous, he could be a mentor to his teammates. An adult would have gotten that. But that’s not what he heard, because of the words she used.”
A parent, or anyone else who interacts regularly with kids, knows that communicating effectively with them can be difficult. In C.J.’s case, his aunt simply explained herself and the boy calmed down. But common words and phrases, no matter how well — intended, can do emotional and psychological harm. Young brains are still developing through the teen years, and kids can’t be expected to process words, context and nuance (sarcasm, for instance) the same way that an adult’s brain does. If you want children to grow up into the best possible versions of themselves, it’s crucial to replace damaging words in your vocabulary with alternatives that help build character. Some of the things parents say to kids seem harmless or even constructive on the surface, but, experts say, they may hurt more than help. Here are seven of these common phrases, and alternatives to get your message across in a better way.
What you say: You’re the best!
What they hear: “Your job in life is to make me happy.”
A better way to say it: “You should be proud of how hard you worked.”
For years, we’ve been told that boosting a child’s self-esteem is important to his or her success in life. But child experts are now learning that too much praise can backfire. Praise-aholic tykes who expect it at every turn may become teens who seek the same kind of approval from their friends when offered a joint or asked if they want to go in the backseat of the car. The implication of saying “You’re the prettiest girl in class,” or talking about the goals she scored but not her overall effort, is that you love her only when she looks the best, scores the highest, achieves the most. And this carries over to the classroom.
Social psychologist Carol Dweck, PhD, tested the effects of overpraise on 400 fifth graders while she was at Columbia University. She found that kids praised for “trying hard” did better on tests and were more likely to take on difficult assignments than those lauded for being “smart.”
“Praising attributes or abilities makes a false promise that success will come to you because you have that trait, and it devalues effort, so children are afraid to take on challenges,” says Dweck, now at Stanford University. “They figure they’d better quit while they’re ahead.”
What you say: Watch your language!
What they hear: “I’ve tuned out what you’re really trying to say.”
A better way to say it: “I’m so glad you came to talk to me, but I have one request for the future. I find that word offensive, so please don’t use it.”
You probably want to keep George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” out of the house, even though you do hear them on TV these days. But Panaccione advises a more lenient policy toward contemporary jargon like “This sucks” when it comes up during the course of a conversation. This is the way modern kids talk; they aren’t trying to be disrespectful. When parents shift the focus to the words themselves, the point of the talk may be lost forever, and the kid shuts down. “This is the last thing you want,” Panaccione says. “Parents are lucky if kids are actually talking to them.” Just remember the time for talking about offensive language is at the end of the real discussion.