When I was growing up, my father would always tell the story of how, in his pre-child days, he vowed never to tell his kids "Because I said so." Having hated the phrase himself, he promised himself he would never use it.
Nevertheless, one day after I asked him "Why?" for approximately the millionth time that hour, he snapped, "Because I said so!" He was horrified and guiltily repeats the not-all-that-scandalous story to this day. Just like him, I hated hearing "Because I said so" when I was little, but you know what? My daughter is only just entering the question-everything phase and it's already escaped my lips a time or two.
What's my point? We inherit our basic blueprint of how to raise our kids from our parents, but according to child psychologists many classic expressions that get repeated down the generations actually teach harmful lessons to children. Better alternatives exist, and all you need to incorporate them into your parenting is a little knowledge and a healthy dose of persistence. Here are a few of the phrases experts warn you'd do well to root out.
1. "I'll do it" or "Let me help you"
Your motivations are kind when you jump in to help out your struggling child, but being too eager to interrupt her struggles robs her of the satisfaction of finally learning to do it for herself. Wait for your kid to ask for your assistance (or reach the melting point of frustration) before offering to help him or her work through the problem.
"If you jump in too soon, that can undermine your child's independence, because he'll always be looking to others for answers," Myrna Shure, a professor of psychology at Drexel University and author of Raising a Thinking Child, cautions on Parents.com.
2. "Good job!" or "Good boy!"
What could possibly be wrong with a simple phrase like "Good job!"? The trouble, according to a host of psychologists, is that using this sort of general encouragement for every little thing teaches kids to value your praise rather than the intrinsic satisfaction of true accomplishment.
You don't necessarily need to ban "Good job!" from your vocabulary entirely, but be selective about when you use it and consider focusing on effort whenever possible. By saying something like "You really tried hard on that!" you teach your kids that "the effort is more important than the results. This teaches children to be more persistent when they're attempting a difficult task and to see failure as just another step toward success," explains Shelly Phillips on Lifehack.
Focusing on the process of achievement also nudges your child to consider what makes his or her behavior so valuable. Saying something like "I liked the way you passed the ball so your teammate could score" can "get a child thinking about the process and working toward a goal," social psychologist Susan Newman tells Care.com. "'Great job,' 'what a smart boy,' 'you are wonderful,' and the like become white noise after a while."
3. "You're so smart."
Your aim in praising your kids' intelligence is to motivate them to accomplish great things with their gifts, but this strategy can backfire badly, psychologists warn. Children who view themselves as smart are both in danger of coasting on their perceived talents and avoiding truly hard tasks that might dent their reputation for brilliance.
"Saying that kind of thing to children actually can work against their striving to learn," author Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard Center for Toddler Development, warns on Business Insider. "Learning is a series of trials and tribulations."
4. "You're so shy/clumsy/lazy."
If labeling your kid positively is dangerous, labeling them negatively is even more so. Not only do once accurate labels often stick long after the child grows out of the description, but inaccurate labels can quickly become self-fulfilling prophecies. Tell your daughter she's "the shy one" and you'll only encourage her to be more nervous in social situations.
"A far better approach is to address the specific behavior and leave the adjectives about your child's personality out of it," instructs Parenting.com's Paula Spencer. "For example, 'Katie's feelings were hurt when you told everyone not to play with her. How can we make her feel better?'"
5. "I know you didn't mean to hit your sister."
"Yes, they did!" says clinical psychologist Rebecca Schrag Hershberg in Good Housekeeping, emphatically correcting parents with rose-tinted glasses. Denying the ferocity of your child's emotions won't help her learn to control them. "As parents, we need to teach children the skills to regulate their reactions and cope with strong emotions in more productive ways, while also acknowledging these feelings are real," Hershberg says.
6. "Don't make me turn the car around."
Actually, it's OK to say this one, but only if you're really going to end the outing if your kids don't quit squabbling. "When parents set a limit, they should always be prepared to follow through, so don't threaten anything you won't actually do, like turn the car around on a family vacation," child psychologist Ariel Kornblum explains, also in Good Housekeeping.
7. "I'm on a diet."
Not everything you shouldn't say to kids is about the kids themselves. Children learn by example, so if they see you struggling with poor body image, they'll almost certainly get the message that they need to meet a certain physical ideal to feel comfortable in their own skin. That's why psychologists suggest you keep your own struggles with weight and body image to yourself. (For the same reason, telling your kids "I'm terrible at math!" is not the best idea.)
What should you say instead? "I'm eating healthy because I like the way it makes me feel" or "It's beautiful outside -- I'm going to take a walk" are better bets than lamenting your new diet or exercise program, Marc S. Jacobson, a professor of pediatrics at Nassau University Medical Center, tells Parents.com.
8. "You're way better than [some other kid]."
Of course, you think your kid is the best, most extraordinary child ever. Every parent does. But you shouldn't actually tell a kid that he's better than others, not unless you want to raise a narcissist, at least. Research shows that kids who are praised as superior to their peers are at higher risk of actually believing their parents and developing an inflated sense of self-worth.
9. "Because I said so."
Turns out my father was right to hate this phrase. "It takes all control away from your kids," Care.com says of the phrase. "You don't always have time to explain your reasoning, but you should try to give your kids a better context of why you're asking them to do (or not do) something."