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4 Words Every Kid Needs to Hear

Photograph by Bryanne Salazar

Think back to the last time you said to your child, "I'm on your side."

Having a hard time? What about the last time you said those words to your child when you were upset with their behavior or choices, and in the midst of doling out consequences for their actions?

It's a hard truth to admit, but for many years, I focused too much on the disciplinary side of parenting. I thought my role was to shape my sons into outstanding citizens and that repercussions for bad decisions were the way to make that happen.

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What I didn't do (but should have) was communicate to my sons, regularly, that I wasn't against them; rather, I was deeply invested in their happiness, success and well-being.

I figured they knew that already. In college writing courses we were told constantly to "show, don't tell," and that philosophy seeped into my parenting style. I did things that showed my love and unconditional support. I cooked their favorite meals, taxied them and their friends to get-togethers, nursed their wounds, and listened when they expressed their problems or frustrations.

Yet, when it came down to it, I never once said to either of my sons, "I am on your side."

I'll never forget the day I realized the impact of those words. My oldest son, the one I've playfully coined "the experimental child" because each new step he takes is a lesson in growth (and mistakes) for both of us, was sitting in a chair, shoulders slumped, as I recounted exactly why I was upset with him for not making up his late homework.

"That's it, mijo," I told him. "I'm taking your phone, and your computer privileges."

"OK," he replied. He didn't even look up at me. Although I was angry, it struck me that he seemed so distant in that moment.

I took a deep breath, lowered my voice and tried again.

"Alvaro," I said softly, "do you understand that you are one of the most important people in the world to me?"

He shifted his glance from his folded hands to my face. Progress!

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I failed to let my sons know that even when I was upset with them, and even when I disciplined them, I believed in them, loved them, and wanted the very best for them.
Photograph by Bryanne Salazar

I continued. "I know you think I'm being unreasonable, but the truth is, I'm on your side. I'm on your team, playing for your win, and doing everything I can to make that possible."

We locked eyes, and I smiled. "All of these things I'm doing are so you start doing the things you need to be successful. Not so I can control you or boss you around for the fun of it."

We continued to talk, and I saw an immediate shift in the way my son responded to me. His shoulders straightened. He looked at my face, not at his lap. He answered in sentences, not just one-word acknowledgments.

When we finished, he was happy, even though I'd followed through with taking away his cell phone and computer privileges. That's the moment I knew, without a doubt, that I had been approaching this parenting business from the wrong perspective.

I failed to let my sons know that even when I was upset with them, and even when I disciplined them, I believed in them, loved them, and wanted the very best for them.

I now make it a priority to let my sons know I am not just being mean for the sake of meanness. I tell them often that I am their No. 1 cheerleader, co-captain and fan. I communicate this when I'm happy as well as when I'm frustrated. I explain to my sons that every decision I make on their behalf is weighed with love, commitment and consideration for their future. I don't just say it, either. I show it by embracing them and loving them, supporting them and listening to them, and making choices in my own life that benefit me in the long run, too.

I mean, how can I preach "playing on the same team" if I am actively and willfully being self-destructive or negligent to myself?

In the last few years, I've seen a giant shift in my relationship with my children. We are much closer than we used to be, and it seems that they feel more at ease talking with me, even when they've made mistakes. My sons learned to value my insight and wisdom because they know I'm not trying to hurt them. I've also noticed they seem more confident and maybe that's because they know they've got people behind them that love them and support them, through the good and the bad.

Meeting my sons' friends has illuminated the need for me to share this insight with others. Many of them have expressed to me that they feel their parents "don't like them," or "don't care," and I know that for most of them, it's simply untrue.

Parenting can be overwhelming and while most of us have the best of intentions, sometimes we miss an opportunity to create an unshakeable bond with our children by communicating our alliance to them. We want them to win, to shine, to have a future and unlimited opportunities. Let's tell them that, even when we're mad, and make sure they know that no matter what they do, we're on their side.

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