Parenting is rooted in actions. Kids learn not just by what we say, but by watching what their parents and caregivers (and eventually other kids) actually do.
Still, the words we use with our children are important. And sometimes, all it takes is the right question — or a simple tweak in how we express frustration — to really boost communication and connection. These six phrases won’t work miracles, of course, but they might just subtly change the types of conversations you’re having with your child, whether you’re looking to get them to open up more about their days, to minimize daily nagging or to just develop a more open, trusting relationship.
1. “You should be proud of yourself!”
Children’s sense of self-esteem starts to come together remarkably young — like, by the time they’re in kindergarten, research suggests. So parents play a crucial role in helping them develop a positive sense of self from the get-go.
Amy McCready, a parenting coach and founder of PositiveParentingSolutions.com, recommends this simple phrase: “The next time your child does something worth celebrating, resist the urge to say ‘I’m so proud of you,’ and instead, tell them they should be proud of themselves!”
The hope behind that simple conversational tweak is that you can help encourage internal motivation — and subtly reinforce the fact that other people’s opinions of them aren’t as important as their own. It can take a bit of practice, but McCready promises that when you say it, you’ll look over and see your child “beaming with pride.”
2. “I hear ya!”
According to McCready, a hearty, enthusiastic “I hear ya!” can be great way to minimize complaining.
“The next time your kids complain about homework, taking a bath, or cleaning their rooms, try saying ‘I hear ya, I don’t love to clean my room either!’” she said, adding: “Sometimes, kids just want to know that you get it.”
Telling your child “I hear you” can help validate a range of emotions, particularly for younger children who are trying to grapple with big feelings. As children’s mental health experts say, making it clear to your child that you hear what they’re trying to tell you does not mean that you necessarily agree with (or condone) any actions they take in response to their feelings. Telling a toddler who is having a meltdown because you won’t let them do something that you hear how frustrated they are does not mean you’re giving in.
But it can help them feel seen and heard, which is an important building block to being able to identify — and grapple with — their own emotions, big and small.
3. “What is your plan for ______?”
This is another phrase McCready likes for minimizing battles over simple daily tasks, like getting homework done or getting through chores. (She likes calling them “family contributions” instead of chores.)
“The next time you’re tempted to remind your child about something, use this phrase instead. For example, rather than reminding your child about the impending due date on the science project, ask: ‘What is your plan for finishing your science project?’” McCready said.
The idea is that you’re giving your child some real ownership over the task, and letting them know that you trust them to get it done. You’re also teaching yourself to be less of a micromanager. Their plan for a given task may not be the one you’d have come up with (and yes, sometimes they might need your help getting on the right track, particularly when they’re younger), but you’re freeing them up to handle to-dos on their own terms.
4. “Why do you ask?”
This is a phrase that Ron Lieber, a financial columnist with The New York Times and author of “The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money,” recommends parents fall back on pretty much anytime their child asks a money-related question. For one, it lets you better gauge what they’re really curious about. A child might ask something like: “Are we rich or poor?” when what they’re really trying to understand is: “Is our family normal? Are we OK?”
But it’s also a great question to fall back on, simply because it buys you a few seconds to compose yourself and be more deliberate about your response, even if it’s ultimately an honest “I don’t know.”
Of course, “Why do you ask?” works outside of financial conversations, too. It’s really a good way to connect anytime your child asks you a serious question, so long as you do so with genuine kindness and curiosity.
5. “Anything you could do to help with ______ would be awesome.”
“During the course of any day, we parents tend to do a lot of ‘directing’ with our kids — telling them what they need to do, asking them to help out, etc.,” McCready said. “With this phrase, you adapt your tone of voice and the words you choose to be inviting rather than demanding.”
Also remember, experts say it’s important to make a point of noticing your child doing good things throughout the day, so when you see your kiddo helping out with anything around the home, let them know.
6. “What was the most frustrating/most exciting part of your day?”
Getting kids to open up about their days can sometimes feel exhausting. So having a few go-to prompts in mind that go beyond the typical “How was your day?” can really help.
One prompt that often works is some version of: “What was the the most frustrating part of your day?” or “What was the most exciting part of your day?” the Child Mind Institute (CMI) recommends. (You might also try subbing in “boring” or “interesting.” Test it out a bit to see what seems to resonate with your own child.)
Getting into the habit of opening up about the challenging and exciting parts of their day might take some practice, particularly for kids who are exhausted after a long day of school and extracurricular activities. But keep at it. As CMI says: “Checking in with kids around how they’re feeling about school, friends, or what they’re interested in (or totally bored with) is the best way to make sure you’re getting the full scoop when it comes to your child’s mental health.”
This is part of a HuffPost Parents series called Enjoy The Ride. Read more here.