6 Completely Meaningless Phrases Parents Say to Kids All the Time
I'd estimate that my 4-year-old twins tune out roughly 90% of what comes out of my mouth. Your own kids might be slightly higher or lower. I can't claim to know what anyone should say to get through to their kids better, but one thing I've learned from being a parent is what NOT to say. Here's a list of phrases that I've noticed mean absolutely 100% jack squat to anyone under the age of 12 -- and yet, I've probably said them all at least 10 times in the last week.
"Be careful!" The problem with telling kids "Be careful!" is that it's so vague it does nothing but put a kid on edge. "Huh? Be careful?" the kid is thinking. "Of what? Where? Why does Mommy keep saying that? The world must be a very dangerous place! I'm scared!" And then in his confusion he falls off the slide and cracks his head open. Oops. Then the parent clucks their tongue and says, "Hey, I told you to be careful!" The poor kid can't win. I guarantee that before reading, writing or potty training, every kid has learned to ignore the phrase "Be careful!" entirely.
"Say hello!" I'm the biggest offender when it comes to this one. I want my kids to be friendly, and I want other grown-ups to think they're polite, so whenever we meet someone new, I command my kids to greet them appropriately. Then my kids, who are usually unstoppably chatty and outgoing, shrink back behind me and clam up.
And why wouldn't they? Most grown-ups have as little idea how to talk to kids as kids do to talk to them. They either condescend to them like they're idiots or they use big words the kids don't understand. If I had a pair of giant legs I could hide behind in those situations, I'd do it.
"Nice job!" and all its variants, like "Nice work!", "Way to go!" and "Good boy/girl!" Millennials have taken a lot of flack for being an overpraised generation, but there's nothing worse than praise that's not only unwarranted but completely nonspecific. I recently caught myself giving my son a "Nice job!" for coming down a slide. What exactly was I complimenting him on? His adherence to the law of gravity? His ability to accomplish a task whose only instruction is "Let go"? Isn't the fun of going down the slide supposed to be the reward? Does he really need kudos from Dad on top of it?
Worst of all, how will he ever know when I'm being sarcastic if I praise him sincerely for absolutely everything? Someday I'll say something like, "What?! You crashed the car? Nice job, kid!", and he'll actually feel a little surge of pride.
"You're OK!" I'd like to propose that we rename playgrounds "You're OKs", because you hear that phrase so often there that it would save parents a lot of work. Every time a kid scrapes, bumps or bangs some part of their body, Mom and/or Dad are quick to swoop in and insist, "You're OK!" Half the time, the parent doesn't even bother to check first whether anything got broken, bloodied or severed during the incident, but that's not even the point. In trying to keep your kid from overreacting to a little boo boo, you're conditioning them in the fine art of denial.
Even telling your kids to "walk it off" is better than "You're OK", because at least it acknowledges that something happened before making them feel like total wimps for feeling bad about it.
The biggest problem with "You're OK," though, is that it doesn't even work. You're not going to convince a kid with a fractured pelvis that nothing's wrong, and if nothing really is wrong, then you're liable to freak them out with all the unnecessary attention, which brings me to the next phrase...
"Are you OK?" If we're not assuring our kids that they're OK, we're asking them whether they are. Here's how it works. Your kid takes a nasty tumble, but she's totally fine... until Mommy or Daddy jumps up to check on her and wails, "Oh my God, are you OK?" The fall wasn't such a big deal... but Mommy scared the crap out of her... and got her thinking that maybe she wasn't so fine after all. So then she starts shrieking and bawling until Mommy comes to pick her up to comfort her. And what does her mother say to her then? "Oh, you're OK."
"You know better than to do that!" Clearly, they don't, or they wouldn't have done it. Sure, lots of kids do things they know better than to do, in order to get attention. So what are you doing when you tell them this? You're giving them exactly the validation they're looking for, thus playing right into their trap.
Fellow parents, we should know better than to do that.