Carpenters have hammers. Runway models have double-sided tape. Proctologists have Vaseline. Boss Parents have go-to phrases for managing child behavior.
I didn’t come up with the useful phrases below. They’re things I’ve picked up over the years by observing many brilliant teachers and parents in many different schools.
I’m grateful for these tools, which I use regularly to communicate with children, because they work. I’ve shared them with friends and clients to reduce bickering, nagging, and pestering, and to support children in choosing appropriate, safe behaviors. Now I’d like to share them with you.
1. “What is my number one job?”
My daughter has heard this so many times, that she’s quick to give the answer: “To keep me safe.”
She also knows it’s the end of the discussion when she’s grilling me with “why not’s” about something that’s related to safety or health. (That’s pretty much everything).
2. “Remind me what you’re working for today?”
I try to use this phrase instead of nagging children over and over about completing tasks or following directions.
For this phrase to work, you need to have an incentive system already in place through which a child earns privileges or rewards. I’m a huge fan of behavior plans with incentives incorporated into them. (An incentive system also keeps you out of bribe territory.)
Referencing the incentive system with this phrase puts the ball in the child’s court and drops an immediate positive into the conversation. It’s a pivot that almost always succeeds in shifting the tone of the interaction.
It’s empowering, self-directive language that reminds the child he or she has control over the outcomes of predetermined agreements and responsibilities.
I taught this to my students and I taught it to my daughter as soon as she began walking.
The idea is to embed an immediate, foolproof safety response that can trigger any time I sense danger (think: chasing a balloon near a busy street). Once the FREEZE response is deeply ingrained, you also can use it to pause sibling arguments (as long as you don’t overuse it).
I explain how to train the FREEZE response in the Boss Parent Tips course.
4. “You get what you get” or “Eat it or lose it”
Instead of: “Oh, well, what color cup do you want? Blue? No? Red? No? Oh, you do want blue. Changed your mind. Ok. Let me look in the cabinet to see if there’s any way I can give you more control of this situation…”
I CAN’T EVEN when I’m handing out something for a fun activity or treat and kids start with the whines about color. Kids today have plenty of choices. Eat the green one or throw it in the trash. Cry about it if you want.
We’ll never know peace if we allow color switching. OK, maybe that’s a little over-dramatic. But it only takes one cupcake with green sprinkles in the trash can for them to learn this lesson.
5. “One of our house rules is that we [fill in the blank]”
I try to tell kids what I want them to do, not what I don’t.
I recommend to all of my clients that they create house rules with their children that explain their family’s core values. Then, if everyone in the household uses this phrase consistently in reinforcing the rules, behavior improves.
In my house they are:
- Treat each other with love and kindness
- Follow directions
- Use a safe body
What works even better is to tie your house rules to an incentive plan.
6. “Check your schedule.”
A visual schedule or checklist for daily routines can positively re-frame interactions with children. (I use a terrific app from LessonPix.com to make ones like you see here.)
“Check your schedule. What’s next?” replaces, “Brush your teeth. Did you brush your teeth yet? I said, ‘Go brush your teeth!”
My daughter has a morning and evening checklist that she loves. We still have to remind her to stay focused on completing the list, but it’s a system that encourages independence and self-empowerment.
This system, too, can be supported by incentives. Completing the schedule with only one reminder could be how your child earns TV time. Or a week of success could earn the privilege of choosing what restaurant the family eats at over the weekend.
7. “Do we need to go practice?”
Rehearsing appropriate behaviors (a.k.a. practicing) is one of my favorite ways of employing creative punitive consequences.
It’s not mean-spirited punishment. It just takes time that a child would rather spend doing something else and uses it to repeatedly get in and out of the car without fighting, or put shoes on, or put clothes in the hamper, or do whatever thing is not getting done appropriately. (You get the idea.)
The best thing is, the practice really does help them learn and execute the behavior better in the future. I explain how to use rehearsal for just about any type of behavior in the Boss Parent Tips course.
In short, if you’re in the habit of rehearsing with a child, when you say, “Do we need to go practice?” they know you mean business.
8. “I like how you ______. It looks like you worked hard on this!”
Research suggests praising children for the effort they put into things makes them more resilient to future setbacks than telling them they are smart and amazing.
The idea is we want to focus on what they are capable of when they apply and focus. We want to communicate that achievement is the result of prolonged commitment and effort, not genetically assigned IQ.
But, I think this is an area for balance, too. I still tell children they’re handsome and amazing sometimes.
(Source: American Psychological Association)
9. Can you do it alone or do I need to help you?
This is a little nicer sounding than, “We can do this the easy way or the hard way.”
However, this does bring up a memory of my daughter in the bathtub. We were in position to wash hair. She said, “Let’s do it the hard way, mommy!” (That’s not what you’re going for here, FWIW.)
Doing it the hard way usually involves screaming tantrums, lengthy time-out, and eventual compliance. This phrase serves as a reminder that I’m consistent, I follow through, and I’m willing to go all the way.
10. If I asked your mom/dad/teacher, what would they say?
This sounds more mature than, “Liar, liar, pants on fire!”
A few weeks ago I wrote a whole article on what to do when your child lies.
11. “Look at me. I’m about to give you a direction.”
This phrase helps you break out of out of the nagging cycle.
Be aware that for some kids, eye contact can be so overwhelming that it’s difficult for them to focus on your words. What you really want is for their body and energy to be focused on you before you give a direction.
This changes the whole tone of direction-giving and makes it really clear to the kid that “in a minute” will not cut it. This needs to happen now.
12. “We are finished talking about that.”
This is what I say after I’ve talked about Christmas 23,345 times in a single afternoon.
Sure, my daughter might end up in therapy talking about how I was “dismissive.” But I give myself permission to be finished.
Besides, it’s a life skill to know when a conversation needs to MOVE ON, and I’m helping her learn it.
If you’ve loved a kid with autism, you know how serious perseverations can become. My neurotypical kid could give any of my former students a run for their money.
If your child does this, too, he or she probably just wants to interact with you and doesn’t have skills or awareness to know when a subject is done. It’s a great time for some direct social skills instruction. “If you just want to chat, you could ask me about…”
Help them out. For all of our sakes!
In Conclusion: Be Predictable in Managing Child Behavior
I hope you’re able to jack a few of these phrases for your repertoire like I did.
As parents we have to make so many decisions about every little thing. Having some canned responses is a relief. It’s nice to not have to think so much when you’re trying to meal plan, return emails, and parent simultaneously.
Also, when we have stock phrases and use them consistently, they serve as cues for children. They begin to realize, We’ve been here before. This is how we address this issue every time.
Obviously, follow through is important. Especially when there’s an unspoken “promise” in your response. But you can practically feel their eyes rolling in defeat when you get these phrases into solid rotation.
That kind of boring predictability is a big part of what it takes to be a successful Boss Parent.
About the Author
Lisa King is the co-founder of Boss Parent. She also provides parents with in-person and remote child behavior consulting.