Mark My Words

You may mean well, but your words can cut deep. DR RICHARD C. WOOLFSON points out common phrases that parents use with kindergarteners, and offers better alternatives to get your point across.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
Words are very powerful, so what you say can have a very strong influence on your six-year-old. That’s great when you encourage him, but not so great when you inadvertently hurt your child’s self-esteem. Here are nine things to avoid saying:
DON’T SAY “What’s that you’ve drawn?”
WHY NOT You think he’ll be happy with your attention and interest, but when your preschooler has been creative, he just assumes that you know what his painting or drawing represents. The moment you suggest that his work is unrecognisable, his selfconfidence dips.
“That’s a very interesting picture. Tell me about it.”
DON’T SAY “You didn’t try hard enough.”
WHY NOT You are disappointed with his poor performance in the latest worksheet; you expected him to do better because you know he is a clever child. But maybe he did try hard and that, for example, he was just too anxious on that day.
Let’s look at your study plan the next time you have a test.”
DON’T SAY “Why are you so stupid?!”
WHY NOT That’s a criticism of your child generally, not just a criticism of his behaviour. It is severe disapproval of him entirely as an individual, and suggests that you dislike everything about him, not just the misbehaviour that triggered your remark.
“You are usually so well-behaved, so I’m so surprised you did that.”
DON’T SAY “Mummy won’t love you if you keep doing that.”
WHY NOT Your love for your child should not be conditional – and if he thinks it is, he’ll become even more unsettled. A child’s self-esteem drops quickly if he thinks there is a real possibility that his parents’ love for him can be turned off so easily.
“I love you very much but I am annoyed with you for doing that.”
DON’T SAY “Why can’t you be more like your sister?”
WHY NOT Unfavourable sibling comparisons are always divisive. Instead of encouraging your child to improve, the comparison with his sister is more likely to build his resentment towards her without actually changing his behaviour at all.
“You are a wonderful boy and I know you are capable of achieving much more.”
DON’T SAY “Your clothes are always so dirty and untidy.”
WHY NOT Physical appearance is an important part of your child’s self-esteem. Any negative comment about his looks can dent his confidence, even if the comment is totally justified. He likes to think that he has a good appearance.
“I’d like to help you keep your clothes clean and tidy.”
DON’T SAY “You gave up so easily.”
WHY NOT As far as your preschooler is probably concerned, he had exhausted all the options before he decided he couldn’t get any further with the puzzle. He only stopped when he was sure he had run out of ideas to solve it.
“Let’s see if we can find another way to do this.”
DON’T SAY “How come you don’t have many friends?”
WHY NOT Some children prefer to have a few close friends rather than lots of superficial friendships, so your kid may be very content with a small number of good friends. Your comment suggests that there is something wrong with him.
“I’m glad that you have good friends to play with.”
DON’T SAY “You’re not very good at that.”
WHY NOT His self-esteem plummets if he thinks that he is inadequate. That’s why it is better to encourage him to develop his skills and abilities than it is to highlight his weaknesses. A positive approach is usually more effective.
“If you practise, you’ll get even better.” 
Instead of encouraging your child to improve, the comparison with his sister is more likely to build his resentment towards her without actually changing his behaviour at all.