Talking to your child—even if it's simply baby talk—is an easy way to grow your relationship and boost their learning at the same time. In fact, research suggests that the number of words a child hears within her first few years has a direct impact on language skills and even IQ scores later in life.
But even if we start out saying all the right things, the parenting issues that come up as our kids get older are much more difficult to navigate. Suddenly we feel like we're talking too much—constantly directing, pushing, correcting, questioning, encouraging, and helping our children.
Sometimes talking less means more. Here are four things you should never say to your children, no matter their age. They're not prescriptive as much as they are ways of establishing an awesome relationship with your child:
1. "Say you're sorry, right now!"
A forced apology is truly no apology at all. It makes no one feel better.
But what to do instead? Of course, you should teach your child to always apologize right away if they hurt someone by accident. You probably won't get any pushback on that. But if they hurt someone on purpose? That's a different story. We make them apologize because we want them to be accountable, realize they screwed up, make it better, and ultimately, not do it again. So instead, try asking for an acknowledgment of what they did, an understanding of how it made the other person feel, and a suggestion for how next time could be different.
It'll go a long way toward affecting future behavior and making the wronged party feel OK.
2. "Anna's my tomboy" or "Jake's my hard one."
Don’t summarize your child’s character—especially in front of them. Summarize actions instead. True or not, the labels are not necessary. Labeling people with specific attributes make it harder for them to change, and may make them more likely to adhere to stereotypes.
Consider a study that administered a math assessment to female undergraduate students. The students who checked off their gender before they took the test performed worse than girls who didn’t have to check off a box at all, and simply ticking off the Asian ethnicity box improved performance in Asian females. Perhaps this type of reinforcement is something of a self-fulfilling prophesy.
3. Any lie.
Lying takes many forms when you're a parent. It would be a rare parent indeed who has never threatened to leave a child on the playground because he or she won't get into the car. But you're not going to leave them, even if you've actually inched your car through the parking lot, door left wide open to induce slight fear and fast running.
If the statement's not true, don't say it. You don't want to break down your child's trust in you in order to get her to behave.
4. "You’re the best soccer player in the world!" or "You’re the smartest kid in this school!"
Don't praise using superlatives. If you build your child up so much by praising everything they do, the world will just break them down later when you're not there to save them. Not being the absolute best at something shouldn't feel like failure—no one's best at everything.
We want our kids to be proficient at things, but part of our job as parents is also to help kids find things that inspire them. If kids only value excellent performance, they will skirt the somewhat messy trial-and-error process that comes with figuring out life values. Instead, if our kids are trying their best, concentrate on how the activity made them feel, not what the outcome was.
The communication patterns that we establish with our kids will define our relationships with them. It's not enough just to keep talking to them as they get older. We have to say (and not say) the right things. We must allow space in our parenting for our children to change the way that they behave and who they are (while maintaining a steady platform that they can land on if they need to). Family conversations are important—just know what to leave out.