When I was a child and someone called me a name or said something unkind to me, I was taught to respond with the old poem
Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.
But the truth is that the words did hurt. Fortunately for me, most of the time those words came from people who ultimately didn’t mean much to me: peers that are long forgotten, teachers whose classes are a distant memory, or even strangers that I managed to offend somehow.
From time to time, however, people who matter to us say things that cut deep. I have come to believe that,
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can cause untold damage for a lifetime.”
Here are five things that parents should never say to their kids because of the damage that we may cause with those words:
It will come as no surprise that research tells us clearly that messages like “you’re useless, you’re a clutz, you’re an idiot, you’re stupid” are unhelpful for our children. These messages undermine their feelings of worth, making them feel insignificant and cause them to question their capacity to be valuable to anyone in any circumstance.
Even when we are playing or teasing, such messages damage the security our children need to feel when they are with us. Secure relationships rely on strong trust. Name calling and labels undermine that trust.
Praise is unexpectedly bad for our kids. This counter-intuitive research finding has been replicated in dozens of experiments with literally thousands of children, students, and adults.
It is true that praising our kids for being ‘such a good boy’, ‘such a smart girl’, or ‘such a natural artist, pianist, or sportsperson’ gives a great big squirt of self-esteem in the moment it is delivered. The problems start when our child experiences a setback or failure, they end up questioning the praise. Their thinking goes along the lines of “Hang on, if I’m so smart, or such a natural, or such a good kid, but I just failed, then maybe they were wrong about me.”
Comparisons are deadly. Comparison and competition fuel the idea that we are not enough. These feelings can potentially chase our children throughout their entire lives because there will always be someone we can compare ourselves to who will make us feel bad about ourselves.
Do I really need to explain this one? The damage such statements can cause can be irreparable in some cases, even when it is said in the heat of the moment.
Please, please, please bite your tongue, especially when your teenage daughter slams doors, stomps feet, and tells you that she hates you.
As our children start to question us, we can feel threatened, or we can take their questions as an opportunity for teaching. Using our power to demand our children do as we say simply ‘because I’m the parent and I said so’ teaches our children to look externally for behaviour regulation. If we want our children to do the right thing because they understand the reasons, ‘because I said so’ will probably not ever be useful.
No parent is perfect, and there’s every chance that our kids have heard at least some of those words from us at some time. But as we limit these phrases (or eliminate them) and replace them with more constructive phrases, our kids will thrive.
Is there anything you think I’ve missed on this list? Share your ideas in the comments.