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How to Talk to Kids When They Misbehave

1 Thing You Should Never Say to Your Child

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." When I was little that rhyme was the big, bad, powerful statement we used to ward off the vicious attacks of other kids.

That rhyme gave us power but didn't protect us from the sting of the words. It didn't stop the ugly words from sinking in and taking root. It didn't stop those words from becoming the way we saw ourselves or from imagining it was the way others saw us, too.

What got me thinking about this was a parent-child interaction I witnessed this week in the grocery store, and this conversation about basic needs for healthy relationships, in which a member named Nancy R. shared the thought that "The emotional hurt may be hidden from others, but it plays on your mind, heart, and soul."

If you remember the sting of mean words spoken to you as a child, why would you ever label your kids in ways that could be hurtful to them? I'm not talking about labels like "autistic" or "sensory seeking"; I'm talking about calling your child "sloppy," "liar," "stupid," "awful," etc.

Do parents who do this believe that labeling their child will change something about them or help correct a behavior? Can that ever work?

An "Awful" Boy

I was in line at the grocery store when I heard a mom very calmly and very firmly whisper to her son, "Are you an awful boy?" The little one tried to pull his body away from his mom, as if to escape the sting of his beloved mother's words, but he couldn't. He very sadly dropped his head and said, "Yes."

This little one's face told the whole story. It was obvious this was not the first time mom had said those words to him. You could literally see the effects of his mom's words being accepted by his emotional self. You could see the words becoming part of how he will define himself, now, and in the future — I am an awful person.

We've all read that parents need to separate the behavior from the child, that parents should tell a child that his behavior is awful, not that he is awful. I don't agree. I don't believe that children can distinguish between the two, not really.

Think of it this way. A group of little girls are playing. Trish looks at Suzie and says, "Suzie, your hair looks funny!" The other girls laugh. Does Suzie understand that she's just having a bad hair day, or does she translate that comment into "I'm ugly"?

I suppose she could have if her parents had coached her on how to respond, maybe by giving her a one-liner comeback like, "You think my hair is funny today, you should have seen it yesterday!" from Sally Ogden's book, Words Will Never Hurt Me: Helping Kids Handle Teasing, Bulling and Putdowns. But most kids can't deflect labels so skillfully. Labels become deeply rooted in how they see themselves and affect all future decisions about what they are and are not capable of.

Most of us remember the sting and impact of a peer's mean label. Imagine how much bigger the sting is when a parent labels.

When the one person a child sees as always being right, her beloved parent, labels her, she just accepts it and defines herself by it. The wound is so deep that it requires a great deal of reprogramming, if you will, to change it.

Why do we need to use harsh words at all? There are far better words to use — words that can actually motivate a child to change.

3 Questions That Improve Behavior

When your child behaves badly, try asking her if what she did was kind. Was it safe? Was it respectful? These three questions begin the process of change and teaching — without categorizing or labeling.

As an educator, a mom, a former child, and now an empowered adult, I implore you: stop labeling your child, even if the label accurately describes what he's done. Using words that motivate change will get you and your child where you want to go, faster.

Sharon Silver is the author of Stop Reacting and Start Responding and the Skills e-class. Visit to download two free chapters from her book and learn about other Proactive Parenting programs.

Image Source: Thinkstock
BrendaMurray29478 BrendaMurray29478 3 years
The Word of God in James told us that "the power of life and death is in the tongue" - Always speak LIFE (positive) not death (not negative) ... Very positive article, and so easy to discipline in the negative way, maybe cause it is faster than to sit your child down to talk about the behaviour. Maybe one of the PRIMARY reasons we have such a broken society today, if your parents don't believe in you... who will?
vittoria94428 vittoria94428 3 years
I don't know what it is about gymnastics but my kids always run a muck there. I think it's all the padded walls and bouncing balls. I tend not to discipline my children in public mainly because of all the onlookers. Everyones always got something to say, although some are supportive. One older man was watching my son ignoring me one afternoon near the beach and said to my son "ahh just do what your told." It made me laugh as it was exactly what I was thinking. I think mums can be the most judgemental of other mums. It's a pity.
Mari60612 Mari60612 3 years
Self fulfilling prophecy... That's what comes to my mind. Convince your child that they are "awful" or any bad label, and they will grow up believing it. As a result they could hate themselves, which will lead to hate towards others. Aggression and frustration that has been built up from demeaning parenting will potentially result in one of many undesirable outcomes. After all, an "awful" person, does "awful" things. Lets consider the possible outcomes: A drug addict is awful An alcoholic A pedophile An animal abuser A child abuser A thief A murderer.... You get the picture? There are other ways to discipline your child without the psychological torment. Don't be lazy like jaamise... She lacks class, and so will her children. Read up on the options, it's that simple.
Jamie15371594 Jamie15371594 3 years
I tend to get frustrated with my son in stores because it is general routine that he will act up somewhere along the line. Instead of NOT ever taking him out like other people I and my husband have talked to I encourage myself to try a little longer each time and see what works. I never tell him or call him anything, rather (as I read) was glad to see I do correctly and attempt to label the behavior rather than him. I do much of the parenting as a S-A-H-M so to have the same thing EVERY time you go somewhere, it just wears you down especially when you're by yourself and always have to go through it. On another note, what about when OTHER parents stick their nose in and comment?? My first brush-in with this was last week. My son is very active and doesn't have a lot of social skills. We've been working in Gymnastics to let out some extra energy and start understanding structure while also hoping for some socialization. There was a Mom who had not been to this class before and she brought in two kids. She treated them like they were in boot camp and they clearly were sick and did not feel well (thanks by the way cause MY son ended up with it!). My son proceeded to run around the room not following any of the structure. At the end we were all getting ready to go and I was putting my son's shoes on, I asked him if he could say bye-bye to the little girl. The Mom says, "Yeah, maybe next time HE'LL be better behaved." He's almost three so he's not going to really understand, but I am still furious! Why are people so judgmental on people they don't even know!? She doesn't know him or me! I just found it to be so rude and uncalled for! I would never judge someone in that situation, I would try to help them! Bug off lady!
Monika1367595434 Monika1367595434 3 years
Soon you'll have to secure a child in a bubble and let them spit in your face while you humbly put away their laundry and make their lunches. But seriously, does the author of this article know about the amount of truly abusive parents? Focusing on a rather normal conversation, exaggerating every little wording is ridiculous. My grandma called me a toilet seat and told me to die in a ditch, I'd rather if she told me that I'm awful and should stop this behavior immediately.
vittoria94428 vittoria94428 3 years
I think it's important to separate the child from the behaviour. For example with regards to the lady telling her son in the shop that he is awful, the boy may not be awful but his behaviour may be. So I think it's ok to tell someone they are behaving in a bad way but it's something they have control over and can also change. It's also probably good to tell our children when they have behaved well too. This might encourage them to behave well more often.
Jaamise15362390 Jaamise15362390 3 years
This is an old article but it's ridiculous. If you tell your child that they are in the wrong for their behavior then you are raising them to be responsible for their actions. My son is 6 and since he was 18 months I have told him publicly and privately when his behavior was unacceptable. Honestly if you sugar coat things for children they don't understand the seriousness. Sorry but I'd rather tell my child the reality that certain behaviors make people believe he's bad, mean or not smart and I'd rather me tell him than for some stranger to. And to all those nosey ass people who want to judge my parenting and the parenting of others like me, FUCK OFF!!!
cat6meow cat6meow 3 years
I tell my kids they are UGLY all the time. I've explain to them what makes them ugly, so when I am in public and say, "You're ugly!" they know I'm talking about their attitudes. So when others are around me and hear me call my daughter or sons that, they may automatically think I'm talking about their appearance. We have no idea what this mother has told her son when behind closed doors. The boys reactions is he messed up and his mother called him on it. So let's not automatically think she has not explain his behavior to him.
JenniferCorry44803 JenniferCorry44803 4 years
Erin, your reply just utterly lacks understanding or logic, not to mention proper grammar. Please point out where this author said a parent shouldn't discipline their child?? You have no apparent concept of an in-between. And Jenna, you sound almost the exact same way.
PatriciaPetry PatriciaPetry 4 years
@ErinTaylor26266 This Person who wrote this was NOT trying to ''judge'' anyone & the Mother who whispered to her son obviously was not quiet enough because she was overheard by the Writer of this article. Your response really frightens me not only because it is so hateful but I'm Sincerely Praying that You are not taking this vicious anger out on any Children You are raising... Praying for You <3
AmberBell20257 AmberBell20257 4 years
My step daughter's mom is this way. The mom tells her she is a brat and only, her little sister makes her happy. That her mom and her boyfriend have not married because she is a brat. My heart breaks for her.
CoMMember13631189244843 CoMMember13631189244843 4 years
Good ways to stop bullying behavior before it has a chance to start. Thanks for the insight.
itayichiwla1365442698 itayichiwla1365442698 4 years
I agree with laurenwhite..there is a difference between "that was a stupid thing to do" and "YOU are stupid". Smart kids can do stupid things not that they are stupid.... And we as parents are so quick to judge other parents on how they raise their kids even before we have had a look at how we are raising ours...whats acceptable in your home may not be in mine
KellyHolmes83573 KellyHolmes83573 4 years
When my son is being silly/funny, we tell he's CRAZZZZY, but we say it in a fun way and his response to us was, 'no mummy, I'm happy', so now that is his response when we say it to him - it is ALWAYS said in a fun way - not telling him that we think he is crazy!!! He isn't!! He is our funny lil gem and we love him so much, which we also tell him. For a 2 year old to have such a cool comeback, we know that we aren't damaging his self esteem with what could be deemed a negative comment.
BarbaraTurner82515 BarbaraTurner82515 4 years
My father was told by his father when he was in his teens "Sonny, you'll never be the man your brother is!" That statement haunted him til the day he shot and killed himself. Then when, as it turned out the same older (only brother) had to help Mom and me liquidate our estate and move rather quickly, I distinctly remember him saying "Lois, Sonny was ahead of his time on wiring and electrical because the way he rewired this section of your car actually simplified everything to something I've never seen before!" Parents! CHOOSE YOUR WORDS CAREFULLY AND TRY TO KEEP IT POSITIVE! I myself was called a very slighting name actually derived from my last name (my maiden name) and it totally crushed me most of the time I was in High School and I had to literally fight with myself to stay positive and if it hadn't been for my Daddy's loving words "You're a perfect little lady just like your mother" & "we're so proud of you" - I'm pretty sure if they hadn't kept me positive I probably would have dropped out but that just wasn't in the equation in my family. Daddy instilled in me how he dropped out to go serve in the Military at 16 and actually had to get his Dad (the same one who told him what he did) written permission to allow him to go into the Merchant Marines and go overseas during Korea. So, the best thing is to "ignore the bad, and accentuate the good" and you will see wonders of change in that child! I know, I know - you're thinking "but they need to know they did something wrong" yes - but like the article says - ask them how they felt when they did "it" or calmly discuss what happened and what they think they can do to right the wrong or whatever positive effect can turn "it" around to something good. Love the child, just let them know what they did is not acceptable. Always make them know they ARE loved! No matter what! It doesn't mean you just give in and permit anything, quite the contrary. It lets them know that you have the patience and love to let them know you are there to guide them as they grow!
Lizzie14624171 Lizzie14624171 4 years
My dad told me things like he "never wanted me" wished my friends were his daughter instead. That he'd "already raised his kids." (My brother and I were born 17 years after his oldest child) I didn't send my dad a Father's Day card last Sunday. Didn't even speak to him, I actually avoid it if possible. If I got a phone call right now that he was dead, I'd be nothing but glad that he was officially out of my life for good. Any questions? Actually, I even despise when parents say they need a drink because of their kids. A parent should be nothing but happy to have their children in their life, even when they drive you up a wall. (And yes, I am a parent.)
SamanthaUeno SamanthaUeno 4 years
Do parents who do this believe that labeling their child will change something about them or help correct a behavior? Can that ever work? My parents thought it did. I was depressed and started neglecting my personal hygiene, I became frustrated and withdrawn as a teenager, not once did they honestly ask me what was wrong, with empathy. They asked me "what is wrong with you?!" and called me scumbag, asshole, moron, wacko....etc. To them, this is normal discipline and was warranted by my actions as a child. I teach children and babysit and have my own daughter....I would never even entertain the thought of calling a child "stupid" matter WHAT foolish, silly things I have seen them do. I talk with them about the choices they made, and 9 times out of 10 they are smart enough to see their own error.
PamellaCoghillWilcox PamellaCoghillWilcox 4 years
As parents it IS out job to raise thoughtful and understanding children and part of that job is to instill them with confidence and strength. I, like many, was also raised in an environment where I heard about being too heavy, my butt was too big, I wasn't smart enough, I was selfish, I was eating too much, etc. My step-grandmother was one of the biggest negative influences in my life BUT I was lucky to have friends who would fill me with positives. Tell me that they were jealous because my butt was "perfect" and guys liked girls with booty. I took pride in the fact that I knew I wasn't "fat" and that my curves were something to be happy with. It does make you feel bad about yourself when you hear negative from people who are supposed to care about you but having other people in your life to help boost you does help also. I'm determined that my daughter will always hear how pretty she is, that she's smart and just has to keep trying with things that are difficult. I don't make her feel that she is better than any other child but let her know that she is amazing by just being who she is. Parents CAN be peers if it is in the right way!!
EmiliaKoiler1370721671 EmiliaKoiler1370721671 4 years
I agree with younger children. When I was older I understood the difference. My parents would say you're stupid, you're lazy, you're fat, etc. It hasn't effected me in the long term though which is great.
TeraStizmann TeraStizmann 4 years
I don't agree with this at all. Parents are not peers.
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