I don't just mean the truly atrocious, emotionally abusive words, either. No one wants to hurl words like "stupid" or "retard" at our children; we can all agree those are wrong. But what about those ordinary phrases embedded in our parenting vocabulary, leftover from our own childhoods? Ordinary words that carry an unintentionally heavy weight.
We're really saying, "I don't like YOU right now. ... And you need to be someone other than who you are."
I'm an offender here; maybe you are, too. But one day I stopped and realized, maybe that's something I should say on the inside, to myself, rather than out loud.
Because, yes, our kids can have miserable attitudes and do astoundingly jerky things, but is there a reason? WHY does my kid have such a crappy attitude right now? How much of that is a mirror image of my own exasperation and snappy impatience? How much of my anger toward his attitude is actually defensiveness? How much of my anger is actually a deep-seated fear that I'm totally screwing him up?
When we say, "I don't like your attitude," we're really saying, "I don't like YOU right now. I don't like how you feel, I don't like how you're expressing yourself, and you need to be someone other than who you are."
2. "I love you, but I don't like you."
This very common "mom phrase" has that same message: "You aren't OK as you are. Change, and then I'll like you."
Of course we mean to emphasize the unconditional love part, but when we say, "I love you BUT … " it certainly sounds conditional. Kids want to be liked and accepted, especially by their parents. (It's why so many of us are in therapy.) Kids need to know that their parents can handle their big emotions and mistakes without being unlikeable, different and in lack.
3. "Man up!"
"Man up" implies that strength and bravery are matters of gender, and that vulnerability is a weakness.
"Man up" suggests that boys need to stuff down their emotions and put on a manly mask to be different than who they are.
"Man up" is dismissive and shame-fueled, dripping in stereotype.
4. "You shouldn't feel that way!"
Of course we don't WANT our kids to feel uncomfortable or unhappy, but our words don't have the power to change reality. And the reality is this: Our kids do and will feel unpleasant emotions, whether or not they should. They feel how they feel. Denying that only perpetuates delusion and distraction from "what is."
5. "Be good/Don't be bad/You're a bad boy!"
What our kids hear: Be different. This only instills that doing or thinking something "bad" automatically makes you a bad person, which is simply not the truth.
6. "Don't cry!"
CRY! Let it out! Get that pent-up energy out of your body; it's not a sign of weakness. If we can stop saying things like, "Don't cry"—or even worse, "Don't cry like a little girl!"—maybe our kids will be more emotionally stable than the rest of us.
7. "WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU?"
When those words tumble out of our mouths ... our kids inevitably wonder the same thing.
Nothing; nothing is wrong with them. Kids are allowed to learn by making mistakes. But when those words tumble out of our mouths—WHAT. IS. WRONG. WITH. YOU.—our kids inevitably wonder the same thing.
Considering so much unhappiness is rooted in that childhood belief that we're different, that we're bad, that something is wrong with who we are, perhaps we should reconsider these words.
8. "It's not a big deal."
To kids, it's all a big deal.
This quote from Catherine M. Wallace has really stuck with me: "Listen earnestly to anything [your children] want to tell you, no matter what. If you don't listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won't tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff."
9. "You are making me angry."
If I want to teach my kid to take responsibility for his emotions, I have to show him what that looks like. No one can make me feel anything without my consent. It's my choice (even when it doesn't feel like a choice). We can still express our anger, but do we really need to play the "you're making me" blame game?