Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of common parental phrases that have caused me some anguish. I dislike them for their lack of effectiveness in teaching the child a lesson (the true reason they’re being used in the first place) and their effectiveness in making the child feel as if having an opinion and making mistakes are unacceptable.
I’ve compiled a list of three phrases that I’d like to ban because—in my opinion—they do nothing to teach the child a lesson and really only succeed at making the child feel bad about himself and the age-appropriate mistakes that he’s made.
1. “Because I said so!”
In many cases, a child who asks a question is doing what he’s supposed to do. He is exploring the world and learning how it works. But for some reason, when an adult asks a child to do something and the child says, “Why?” the adult thinks that the best answer to this question is “Because I said so!”
I get the lesson. The adult is trying to say, “I’m the adult and I’m in charge, so you have to listen to me!” But do we really want kids thinking that asking “Why?” and asking for more clarification on something is a bad thing? Or that they have to listen to something that any adult tells them that they have to do?
(Your first answer to this question might be yes, but if you think about the adult standing by the van with no windows asking your child to get in, you might quickly change your answer!)
Kids should be able to feel comfortable to express their desires to not want to do something, or to question why something is supposed to happen a certain way. It’s up to the adult to explain why a child still must do something that they’ve been asked to do.
Now I find that telling the truth is a great option here for most kids, but there’s a particular personality that really benefits from this. For those of you who are lucky enough to have a child who you might describe as stubborn living in your household, you know that they think it’s their job to question each and every thing, to make sure that you know the right answer (hint: in their mind, the right answer is whatever they say it is).
For this type of child, “Because I said so!” is like a battle cry…a challenge. And my friends, the challenge is almost always accepted by that child. The more you force your power and superiority onto this kid, the bigger of a battle this argument becomes.
For these kids, the truth is essential:
“I asked you to grab that towel because I’m holding all of these things in my hand and can’t grab another thing. I thought that you’d be able to help me since your hands were empty.”
“I asked you to get your feet off of the couch because when we are wearing shoes, it is rude to put our dirty shoes onto people’s couches. If you’d like to put your feet up on the couch, then you need to remove your shoes.”
When you look at these two sentences above, don’t you think that they teach a much more valuable lesson about why you may have asked a child to do something, instead of just saying, “Because I said so!”? And for kids who have an argument to almost everything, can you see how these statements might lead to more productive conversation about why you must ask your child to do things that they don’t want to do sometimes?
2. “How many times do I have to tell you?”
This statement basically means, “I’ve told you several times to do something, but still you are not doing it.” So why don’t we say it like this? Often times it looks something like,
“Seriously, Michael! How many times do I have to tell you to stop hitting your sister?”
What kind of question is this? Is Michael supposed to answer? My guess is that he isn’t and that if he does answer the question, things could go downhill quickly for him! What is Michael supposed to be learning by this statement? Instead of asking this question, an adult could say something like,
“Michael, I’ve asked you three times now to stop hitting your sister. You aren’t following the rule to use nice touches with others, so it is time for you to sit out from playing for a few minutes.”
In the first scenario, Michael was asked a question that had no answer. There was no solution to the problem, just a question that had no great answer. But in the second scenario, Michael heard his parent state that his behavior was unacceptable and that he would receive a consequence because of his actions. He learned that when he hits, he receives a consequence. Period.
Once again, doesn’t this teach a whole lot more than the question, “How many times do I have to tell you?”
3. “What were you thinking?”
Kids are impulsive and will do things quickly with little thought. Someone steals her toy, so she hits. You tell him that it’s time to leave the park, so he drops the ground in tears. Grandma gives him a bouncy ball and before you can tell him not to, he has bounced it into the street and down the gutter.
Chances are strong that during those moments, the child actually wasn’t thinking. He put very little effort into thinking about his actions before he actually did them. Unfortunately, young kids’ bodies work much quicker than their minds, so they often don’t realize the consequences of their actions until after they’ve already chosen to take that action.
This is where parents and teachers come in. Instead of asking him what he was thinking, and suggesting that he just made a totally idiotic move, try saying something like this:
“Your friend just stole your toy, so you decided to hit him. Your choice has gotten you stuck in the time out chair. Was that a good choice?”
“Grandma just bought you a brand new bouncy ball but you forgot to look around you first before you bounced it. I bet next time you’ll remember to do that so you don’t lose another one.”
While the question, “What were you thinking?” might make sense to use in these situations, the reality is that once again, the child can’t really have a great answer to the question. Is he supposed to admit that he wasn’t thinking? And if he said that he was thinking about the consequences, what does it say about him that the end result was what it was?
In addition, it also doesn’t really teach much of a lesson. Isn’t it better for this to become a teaching moment for the child to learn how to act better next time? Asking that question simply doesn’t offer any learning opportunities to be utilized next time.
I’m fully aware that just because I don’t like these phrases doesn’t mean that the rest of the world will stop using them. In addition, I know that it can be hard to say the right, perfect thing in the heat of the moment when you see your child do something that you know he knows not to do. My hope isn’t that I’m going to rid the world of these statements, but instead that it will open your eyes to the actual impact that your statements have on your child and his behavior.
Do your statements make your child feel ashamed and embarrassed about the choices that he has made? Or do they help him to learn from his mistakes so that he can do better next time?