We’ve all been there. Personally, before I was a mother, I swore my kids would never hear me say: “Because it just is!” I was convinced I’d be endlessly patient, answering every question to their full satisfaction.
Joking aside, though, we should be aware how what we say can affect our children’s self-esteem, beliefs and values. The most innocuous phrase can have a lasting impact. Here are just a few of them.
‘Don’t be stupid’
For adults, ‘stupid’ is a fairly mild insult. With children, it carries considerably more weight. Can you remember how during your own schooldays there was always one classmate who was regarded as the ‘stupid one’? How, when we were split into ability groups, there were the ‘thick’ kids?
Calling a child “stupid” eats into his or her confidence until they start to believe it. They aim low and expect to achieve even less. It can colour their whole future.
I know someone who was told throughout school that she’d never amount to anything. She failed her exams and took a series of low-paid jobs. It wasn’t until her 30s that she found the confidence to return to studying. She’s now a successful family lawyer in the north of England.
‘Just hurry up!’
It’s frustrating. You should have left for school ten minutes ago, but your child is still dawdling. He or she is singing happily as they try to tie their own laces or find that elusive reading book. The traffic is getting heavier and you’ll be late for work – telling them to hurry up is natural.
But you won’t be able to keep the frustration out of your voice, putting stress on your child. They’ll worry about it – not just today, but tomorrow and every other day when they’re aware you’re waiting.
Try and soften your tone, make it inclusive – “Shall we try and hurry?” Or turn it into a game – “Let’s see who can get their coat on first!” This puts you on the same side, rather than making your child feel you’re against them.
‘I’m too fat/I need to diet’
A child’s self-image is a fragile thing. When they look at you, they see no imperfections. The tummy you hate is simply part of the parent they love.
But by drawing attention to flaws they don’t see and expressing dissatisfaction with how you look, you’re causing them to question their own bodies. They’ll wonder if they’re fat and worry nobody will like them if they’re not ‘perfect’. At the extreme, they’ll develop eating disorders that can affect their whole lives.
Try and reframe the issue. Rather than “I need to go on a diet”, say you’ve decided it’s time to eat more healthily because you’ve found it gives you more energy or makes you feel better.
‘Stop crying – you’re okay’
When your child falls over and begins to cry, you might experience divided instincts. You may want to scoop them up and administer reassuring cuddles. But you’re also aware this can prolong the outburst and convince your child their injury is worse than it is.
Trying to gloss over an accident isn’t necessarily the right thing to do. Your child is crying because he or she isn’t okay. By telling them to stop, you’re sending the message that how they feel isn’t important. The result can be a tendency to hide how they really feel as they grow up.
Instead, go with your first instinct and give them a cuddle – just don’t make too much of a fuss. Acknowledge how they feel, and then move on. “That was a nasty fall. Shall we get a Band-Aid?”
‘You’re driving me crazy!’
There are times when your kids drive you to distraction, no matter how much you love them. And you shouldn’t feel guilty about that. You should not, however, tell them.
Your child doesn’t want to feel like an annoyance, or that you don’t like them. They want to please you and know you love them.
It’s so easy to erode a child’s sense of self-worth, and telling your kids how irritating they are right now really isn’t a good idea. Far better to remove yourself from the situation, even for a few moments, and give yourself space to calm down.
‘Let me do it’
It’s hard, seeing your child to struggle as they try to fasten a button or get frustrated when their drawing of a house comes out all wrong. It’s natural to want to take over. Don’t.
If you keep jumping in, then while you’re solving the immediate problem you’re also stopping your child from developing his or her independence. Your saying that Mum or Dad will always be there to sort things out.
Instead, encourage your child to think around the problem – ask guiding questions and give him or her time to find the answers.
“Why do you think that isn’t working? Ok, so if it keeps sticking, how might we find out what’s causing it? How do you think we could stop that?”