11 Seemingly Innocent Phrases You Shouldn't Say To Kids

Experts reveal what to avoid and what you should use instead.

We all know to watch our language when we’re around kids: no swearing, no adults-only topics, no gossip you wouldn’t want them repeating to anyone else. If we slip on any of these, we generally realise it right away and can follow up with an “I shouldn’t have said that.”

But there are other things that we should avoid saying to kids that we’re unlikely to notice because they’re so common and seem innocuous. Many of us repeat them habitually. These phrases can cause confusion for kids or muddle the messages we’re trying to send, and experts recommend that we avoid them when addressing our children. Here’s what they are:

1. “Could you/do you mind/will you please/can you?”

Many of us are in the habit of saying phrases like these in order to sound polite or deferential, but they can cause confusion for kids. If you’re giving an instruction, it’s better to do so without asking a question.

Beginning with an interrogative “implies an element of choice, leaving the child room to say ‘no,’” Amy Jackson, chief early learning strategy officer at Primrose Schools, told HuffPost. Instead, use a simple command: “Pick up the blocks, please” or “You need to pick up the blocks.”

Another option would be “It’s time to pick up the blocks.” This phrasing communicates that the parent isn’t making the child do something on a whim, but simply communicating that now is the time in the day’s schedule to clean up.

2. “I’m not going to help you.”

It’s good to encourage kids to do things on their own, but this phrasing “can be discouraging and lead to the child not coming to the parent later,” Whitney Raglin Bignall, associate clinical director of On Our Sleeves, explained to HuffPost.

Instead, Raglin Bignall suggested “Try first and if it doesn’t work we can talk it through.” This lets the child know you believe in them but are there to offer support when needed.

3. “Good job!”

Many of us grew up regulating our behaviour to elicit this kind of praise from adults. But this vague commendation isn’t specific enough for kids to really benefit. “It gives little insight into what they are doing well,” Jackson said.

When they’re doing something right, be specific so they’ll know which behaviours to repeat in the future. You could say something like, “I see you picking up the blocks and putting them in the bins, thank you for helping us keep this space clean” or “Good job throwing that away.”

4. “I want you to be good.”

Many of us have memories of being sternly told that we’d “better be on our best behaviour” before entering someone’s home, or in other situations. But, again, this instruction isn’t specific enough to be helpful to kids. They lack experience and won’t always know what “good” behaviour looks like in a given situation.

Instead, tell the child exactly what you need them to do: “I need you to stay next to the cart and only touch the food we are going to buy.”

5. “Calm down.”

It can feel like the most obvious instruction to give a shrieking child, but it simply doesn’t work. “No one has ever calmed down by being told to do so,” Jackson said.

“Children need to know it is okay to have big feelings and be taught ways to self-regulate. Telling them to calm down, stop crying or get over it is assuming they can or know how to,” she continued.

A hug, a few deep breaths together or redirection may help kids regulate when they are having intense feelings. You may also find that your own calm, continued presence is enough to help them.

6. “It’s not a big deal.”

While an issue may seem trivial to us, that doesn’t mean it feels trivial to our child. “These statements often invalidate the child’s feelings,” Raglin Bignall said.

“It can lead to them feeling dismissed or believing their feelings are not valued. It also may cause a child to second guess themselves and the validity of their feelings/experience,” Jackson said.

Instead, try an open-ended question such as, “This seems really important to you — tell me why you’re upset,” Raglin Bignall suggested.

Telling your kids something isn't a "big deal" can invalidate their emotions.
d3sign via Getty Images
Telling your kids something isn't a "big deal" can invalidate their emotions.

7. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

“We don’t want kids to feel punished for finally opening up,” Raglin Bignall said. We also want to keep the focus on their feelings, not our own, by praising them for saying something and letting them know that we are there to listen.

You could respond instead with, “Thanks so much for coming to me about this,” she suggested.

8. Ending a direction or statement with “OK?”

Many people are in the habit of tacking the question “OK?” to the end of a request in order to soften it or appear accommodating. But kids may not be able to pick up on this. Give clear directions for what you need the child to do and end there.

Likewise, if you are making a declarative statement such as “Mommy’s going to leave now,” you don’t want to finish with an “OK?” You’re not asking the child for permission or feedback, you’re simply telling them what’s going to happen.

9. “Stop it.”

While sometimes we need to prevent our kids from doing something dangerous, when it comes to less urgent behavioural issues the general rule is to use affirmative rather than negative commands, telling kids what to do instead of what not to do.

Again, it helps to be as specific as possible: “Walk next to me” or “Keep the ball on the ground,” are examples that Raglin Bignall gave. You may hear teachers using phrases such as “Walking feet” instead of “Don’t run,” or “Inside voices” instead of “Stop yelling.” Phrasing requests in this way helps you keep your tone more positive, too.

10. “Was that a good choice?”

We want kids to reflect on their behaviour, but this particular phrase “sends an indirect message to the child that they are choosing to be ‘bad,’” Jackson said.

Instead, ask questions that will help the child come up with possible solutions on their own, and affirm that the child is always good even if they sometimes make mistakes with their behaviour.

11. “Use your words.”

This command doesn’t acknowledge that a child’s distress is a result of their limited ability to communicate what they’re feeling.

“If a child knew the words to express their feelings, they likely would,” Jackson said.

Instead, she recommended, “Ask open-ended and simple questions, in a calm and controlled manner such as: ‘What do you need?’ ‘How can I help?’ ‘Tell me what happened’ ‘Do you feel _____?’”

Help the child figure out what they can do when they have feelings or anger, sadness or frustration. “Practice with role play and talk openly about what they could do differently next time,” Jackson said.

Remember when talking to your child that it isn’t only the words you use, but the way you say them as well as other signals you may be sending. If you as a parent are feeling stress, kids will pick up on it. It’s perfectly acceptable to say that you need a minute to calm down or (when safe) to step away briefly. This gives you a chance to think over what you’re about to say, and it models for your kids how to regulate their own emotions.

While it can be a challenge, staying calm when your child is upset “is what helps them to know that no matter how they are feeling they can navigate hard things,” Jackson said.