The time to fire an arrow is not the time to make the arrow. I like to have some phrases in my pocket to pull out when the parenting situation arises. Here are some of them; feel free to take what you will.
“Because I said so, and the reason that I said so is…”
When someone says, “Why do I have to?!” I start with this. The reason they do something is because I am the parent and I have authority over them. I have their best interests in mind. I am responsible for anything they do wrong and I give them everything. They owe me obedience. I need their obedience in order to keep them safe. When they are so big that they don’t need me to keep them safe, or feed or clothe or shelter them, they don’t owe me obedience anymore.
But it is also great in the long term development of children for them to know the WHY. If they know the why, they can put it in their heart and that can guide them throughout their lives.
“Because I said so” just feels so good to retort back in their face. This part is automatic, but by habit it leads to the second part. “The reason that I said so” takes the argument out of the emotional fighting brain and into the thinking brain. And teaches them how the world works. And shows you are not a capricious totalitarian. Unless you have a bad reason, then you really are a totalitarian.
“That is not my plan.”
When a kid asks me to do something, like go to the playground today, or play hide and seek, and I don’t really want to, but I don’t have a great reason not to, and I might consider it if they really want it, but haven’t been convinced yet, I’ll say it’s not my plan. It leaves the door open to change my mind, but I could stick to it if they aren’t convincing. You don’t want to say the word “No” and then change after they while.
“If you’re so big that you don’t need to listen to me, you are big enough to buy your own __”
“Obey first, ask questions second.”
There are some situations which require immediate obedience, like “don’t touch that it’s 425 degrees” or “get out of the road a maniac is driving toward us.” They should be in the habit of quick obedience. I don’t say, “Obey first, ask questions later” because that sounds like I wouldn’t want them to ask or that the reason doesn’t matter. I want to emphasize that I have a reason I will be happy to share with them once the imminent danger has passed.
“Walk or be carried in 5, 4, 3 …”
This is for children who are still carry-able. If it’s time to go to the car, they don’t have a choice about whether they go now or later or not at all. They are the child, I am the parent; they don’t pay or work for anything, they don’t choose most of these things, I do.
When the parent has clear authority, and there is clear (and reasonable) punishment for infractions, I think it makes the relationship better and safer and more enjoyable. If the parent is required to creatively cajole the child into doing everything they need to do, it will exhaust the parent and they will have no energy for conversation or play, which is what grows the child’s brain.
If the parent is required to patently bear with all annoyances and misbehavior the child can dish out, at some point the patience will run out and the parent will snap (usually right before dinner or right before bed, which are key relationship and brain building times.) I think parents should save their emotional energy for the interactions that really matter, not trivial questions like, does the preschooler have to go potty before a trip to the library?
So, when the child is required to go somewhere and they are delaying, I say “walk or be carried in…” and I count down as many seconds as I have patience for. Usually the child is indignant and walks themselves.
In my education to become a teacher, I learned that you can only control your behavior, not the child’s. So you constantly only talk about what YOU are going to do.
For older children, you can’t carry them, so before you issue a command, know what action YOU will take if they do not carry out the command.
“Do you want to sleep on a pillow tonight? Then go put your head on it.”
After I have used up my fun, silly, sweet ways to get children to lay down, I say this. If they still linger, I say that I will take their pillow in five seconds. And then count down from five, and take the pillow. They get it back the next morning. I think it is possible to fall asleep without a pillow, although undesirable. Is it negotiable that they go to bed? No.
This only works if you never give it back because they cry, and if you actually take it when you say you will. If you aren’t going to be consistent, they just chalk it up to one more reason why they shouldn’t obey you.
“Be a woman of your word”
This is my phrase when talking about honesty, or following through on commitments. I’ll ask them, “Are you a man of your word?” It sounds so grown up and I think they like it and want to grow into my expectations.
I say it about myself when they ask why they can’t stay five more minutes after I said time to go. “No, I am a woman of my word.”
When you need to wipe a child’s face, just touch it with the cloth and feign happiness and say, “better!” They feel happy you’re making progress and they want to look better, and they’ll submit if they think it’s working. Before I learned this trick, I would wipe their face, and say, “wait, no, there’s more, your face is still a disaster, okay, let’s keep wiping, no it’s still there-“ and what they hear is “We will be doing this forever and it will never work and I’ll never look presentable so let’s just quit now.”
“I’ll let you try again politely.”
When they demand something in a rude tone. Preserves your dignity in a calm way.
“What do you think?”
Sometimes kids ask a question and they want you to say a certain thing. It’s like they’re quizzing me, like I admit I quiz them sometimes. I don’t like to use my mental energy on guessing what’s in their heads, becuase it could really be anything. So I have them tell me what they want me to say. I’ll humor them when I’m in all but the saltiest of moods. I love to hear their little voices saying the right answer to my quizzes, so I’ll let them hear my voice saying the right answer to their quizzes.
“I’m sorry, I don’t want to hurt you, will you forgive me?”
I love this one. It works on everyone. You say it when someone’s mad. You say it whether you are to blame or not. It doesn’t admit guilt, and it doesn’t accuse of guilt. I like it better than, “I didn’t mean to!” because, face it, you did mean to at the time. “It was an accident” is just as bad. What does that even mean?
But in this moment when you say, “I don’t want to hurt you,” you don’t feel the same anger. You don’t want to hurt them- anymore. Or if you truly did nothing wrong, and they are mad for no reason, you still don’t want to hurt them.
“Will you forgive me?” always applies as well. If they are mad, they need to forgive you.
We use this weekly, sometimes daily. I use it when I plunk kids too roughly in time out, or when I yell unreasonably loudly. I trained the kids to say it as soon as they can talk. When they say it sincerely it melts the other sibling’s heart and they hug and play together. I say, “Who’s going to be the hero and say it first?”
This works on me. Bryan says it often. When I’m riled up for a fight, and he says he doesn’t want to hurt me, my anger just deflates. I was angry because I thought I was getting attacked. But if he doesn’t want to hurt me, then we can speak reasonably together. I don’t need to defend against anything. It’s odd that being defensive is an attack on the other person, and will provoke the very thing you were trying to avoid.
This phrase quickly disarms angry strangers as well.
A session of Kids’ Court is convened when there is an injury or almost an injury. I try to use as much legal jargon as I can, just to slip that knowledge to them on the sly.
I get a pen and paper and try to reconstruct what happened and what led up to it. One child speaks at a time and others are not allowed to interrupt. Sometimes I shout “Order in the court!” and it’s a power trip. Everyone will have the chance to speak, and everyone will have a chance for rebuttal. The word “allegedly” is in the court record often, when one child claims the opposite of another.
If a child refuses to come to court when I issue them a summons, they get whatever punishment I want.
Then in the margins, talking out loud, I surmise what emotions the person was feeling and ask them if I am correct. I want my children to be well versed in human emotions and for them to be very familiar with what kinds of actions produce what kinds of feelings, and what kinds of feelings produce what kinds of actions.
It takes a long time. But actually, not as much as it used to. Maybe we’re getting more efficient at kids’ court, maybe our current lifestyle doesn’t lend itself to conflict (five kids home all day every day) but hopefully they are increasing in their EQ, which is like IQ for emotions. But unlike IQ, it actually matters in life, and it actually contributes to your happiness.
When I am finally clear on what infractions each child comitted, I lay out the punishment. It’s usually their magnets moving down a certain number of spaces (if it goes too low they don’t get dessert).
When I’m dealing with toddlers and preschoolers I don’t have kids’ court but I do name the feeling. When a child feels understood, they calm down.
I never say, “You felt furious! That feels so bad.” I never tell them feelings feel bad. I only say, “That’s a big feeling, isn’t it!” It’s not bad, it’s big. They’re not wrong for feeling it, and I tell them recent times when I felt that feeling. The danger with this empathy, though, is that I am way too lenient on children when I think about times I felt what they are feeling.
“We feel sad when we lose something.”
Things, friends, opportunities, etc.
These short, kid-friendly explanations are so useful in helping kids understand their big feelings. And my big feelings too.
“We feel angry when someone hurts us because we might need to protect ourselves.”
“We feel infuriated when we see injustice.”
“We feel embarrassed when we do something that is less mature than we think we are.”
“We feel disappointed when our expectations don’t meet reality.”
“We feel afraid when we think we are in danger.”
“We feel discouraged when we don’t think we have the resources to do something.”
“We feel annoyed when something is too loud or repetitive.”
This starts in toddlerhood. “Say ‘mama.’” “Say ‘pillow.’”
And as they grow, I use it to teach them manners. “Say, ‘Thanks, Mom, for the pickles.”
And I use it to empower them in conflicts. “Say, ‘Stop hitting me!’” My first step in a conflict is to give the victim the words to say that should stop the situation. If the aggressor doesn’t respond to the victim’s words, I step in.
Page of our book
DNA is a really useful concept for children to have early. You build a little at a time.
We tell the kids that we have a book of instructions on how to make our body. (Later, we say, each cell has a copy.) For each body part, you have two pages. You use one of them and don’t use the other. You got one page from each parent. You might have gotten the page that they use, and so the child is like the parent, or you might have gotten one that they aren’t using, that they got from their parent.
This basic understanding is useful when commiserating about certain family traits, or explaining evolution.
“You have money.”
Heidi and Peter get two dollars a week, Austin gets one dollar a week, and Erika and Bethany don’t get an allowance. This is related to how many chores they do Saturday morning. Austin is probably coming up on a raise, because his chores have really increased in quality. Don’t tell him, though, please save me a few dollars.
I write a list of all the chores that need to get done, and kids choose what they want to do, one at a time, rotating from oldest to youngest. Oldest chooses first because they have the most jobs. Kids can only do as many jobs as they are old. “Yay! It’s your birthday! Now you can do-gasp!-three jobs!” This is going to be awesome when I have a bunch of teenagers. If there are any left after all the children have chosen their age number of jobs, I will agree to do 32 chores. No one argues about having more chores than their siblings when I remind them how many I have.
Some kids choose easy jobs, and some kids choose fun jobs. It’s interesting.
If someone doesn’t want to do chores, I tell them they will not be able to play video games again until their chore is done. They dink around all morning, but when device time starts they scurry!
Kids usually have some money saved up, so when they ask for something I say, “You have money.” I am willing to buy anything for them if they have the allowance. But they are usually really quick to wise up and think about whether they truly want it. They are so frugal with their own money. And if they’re not, they learn a lesson. It’s a good lesson to learn when it’s a Pokemon mug that costs $16 and not thousands of dollars of credit card debt.
Each child’s account is kept in those leather checkbook balance books that banks give out. Mint keeps track of our transactions, so I don’t use the paper ones for my own money. I carry these little books in my purse, so they will always be with me at a store if a child sees something.
“You don’t have to do it perfectly, you just have to do it.”
I have some perfectionists, wonder where they got that quality, and sometimes it keeps them from even starting a chore.
We try not to nit pick about the quality of jobs. Quality will come with time, hopefully. I’m betting that the important factor in learning to do a chore is number of times completed, not effort spent on each instance.
We do check if each child did each job. If they missed a spot, I’ll either do it for them or acknowledge that I can tell they did the job.
Our kids really take this phrase to heart when it comes to sweeping the kitchen floor. The broom seems to float around the room.
“It’s time to do your favorite job!”
We taught our toddlers that clearing their dishes after a meal is their favorite job, and that it’s an insult for someone to do it for you. I made up a song about doing it for them, and I do a really annoying happy dance. We all pretend to like to put away our dishes. We pretend to like to put away their dishes too.
They carry their plate, dump it in the trash can, and put it in the correct section of the dishwasher. They get the step stool, dump out their milk in the sink, and put their cup in it’s place in the dishwasher. They put their own silverware in there too.
When we say, “I’m going to do your favorite job!” my toddlers scream and run to do it.** This only works if you actually put away their dishes when you say you will.
Let’s talk about monkeys. Some scientists did an experiment on monkeys. If the monkeys pressed a button, they got a treat. They did this until the monkeys learned it really well. Then, all of a sudden, the button stopped producing treats. They counted how many times the monkeys continued to press the button. It was six or eight. Then, they made it so the button would only sometimes deliver a treat. And then after a while they turned off all the treats. So the monkeys were used to intermittent rewards, and then suddenly rewards disappeared. Guess how many times the monkeys pressed the button after intermittent rewards? A hundred times.
So if you want kids to keep pressing your buttons, only sometimes give them what they want.
** Bethany has had five nightmares recently, and when I ask her what happened she says, “Peter was going to do my favorite job!” And so after meals I’m trying to tell her, “I’m going to ask you nicely one time to please do your favorite job.”
“I will ask politely one more time.”
I say this with my last shred of patience when I have asked a child to do a job and they have ignored me. If they continue to ignore me, I will mete punishment (right now it’s moving clips down.)
“Confirm that you heard me.”
If a kid is upstairs or on devices, and I say something important, I will require them to say “I heard you.” This puts them on the hook. It removes the excuse, “Sorry, I didn’t hear you.”
“Bum or knees”
I don’t know if it’s just my children, but they frequently stand on their chairs at meals. Maybe my table is tall, maybe my children are short, but it happens often. It’s pretty quick to say, and doesn’t need to derail the conversation.
I teach my children at mealtimes about their drop zone- the area directly under their fork and mouth. I say, everyone drops food off their forks and out of their mouths. The trick is to put your drop zone over your plate. I think my children start thinking about this at 3 years old. Before that, you’re in bib land. Anyway, if a child is about to drip food on their shirt I say, “Drop Zone!” and that tells them to lean over their plate.
“Do a milk push!”
Kids spill their cups when the cup is in the area where their arms normally operate. A cup at the top of the plate is usually safe. Whenever I see a cup in a precarious position, I tell them to do a milk push, or a water push. (I usually don’t serve juice, because they just drink that first and then are full- just until dinner is over, then they are hungry again. I want them to ingest the fiber that should have come with the juice in the whole fruit.)
When kids spill milk, I don’t give them more milk at the meal. I say, “After you spill milk you get water.” Milk is not expensenve, but there is a cost to buying more and cleaning up the spill and I want them to the be one to pay the small cost.
Montessori teachers like to give very young children open cups. Even open glass cups BECAUSE they will break and teachers are stressed about it. When the adults are very careful with an object and give warnings about the object, it is imparted to the children. They start to learn to be careful and even very small kids can use glass cups properly. (After some number of spills and broken cups.)
“Is your tummy full and happy?”
“Only food and family (and friends) at the table.”
We don’t like it when kids bring toys to the table because they play with the toy instead of eating or they get the toy messy. Kids are allowed to come to the table after they have put down their toy. They don’t have to put the toy down! If they don’t need to eat, that’s fine. This only works if your child knows you won’t give them food outside designated mealtimes. If they know that they’ll get a snack if they ask four times in increasingly whiny tones, they will be okay with missing the healthy meal.
Some things can become a toy, like chopsticks, and we take those too.
“No toys on the toilet.
I have reached into a used toilet bowl to retrieve a tiny doggy and really, once is enough.
“No kids on the table.”
I think kids on the table and counters is probably mostly fine, maybe, but I would prefer to not have feet on the table or heads too far from the tile floor. So I don’t let kids be on the table. I define “kids on the table” as knees or bums resting on the surface. They can lean.
This rule doesn’t mean that teenagers can never sit on the counter, or that parents can’t be on the table to fix the light or whatever, but kids shouldn’t do those things. Freedom should go from less to more. They should start out life with very few freedoms which gradually increase until they are completely free. If they start with the whole world as their oyster, and then rules are placed on them as teenagers, they will feel sad because they are losing freedom.
When a child is chewing or sucking on a toy, I make them spit it out and the quickest thing to say is “not food.” I think toddlers will understand that more than “don’t put that in your mouth.” If they don’t know the word don’t, it will be confusing.
I say this so often about headphone cords. Are they tasty?
“Be nice to your future self. Give yourself presents in the future, and not punches.”
Some actions we take today will give a present to our future self, like brushing teeth, or studying for a test. Some give punches to our future self, like leaving clean clothes in the laundry hamper or staying up late. There’s a giant conveyor belt with items coming towards us, and our past self placed every one. Live your life so that you always prioritize your future self. Opt for a little pain in the present for a large reward in the future. Don’t borrow from your future self, or your life will get worse and worse and you’ll have fewer and fewer resources to deal with it.
“Five minute warning”
Giving kids a five minute warning before leaving the playground or starting a meal is a good idea. And when you say five minute warning, set a timer or watch your phone. It’s an opportunity to calibrate their internal clocks, to help them learn how much five minutes is. And every time you let them go longer than that five minutes, you lose credibility. When you do finally feel like enforcing what you have said, they are sad because they truly don’t understand why they can’t today, when yesterday they could. Being lenient today brings sadness tomorrow.
“Winner cleans up”
When we play a board game, we follow this rule. It’s therapeutic, to lose and then get to just walk away.
“Look up and sniff.”
I invented a solution for runny noses and congested babies. Try it yourself: when you have the sniffles, take a few drinks of water, and then look up and sniff. After a couple breaths, you’ll feel mucus go down your throat and then you don’t have to snuffle anymore.
Older kids can go get their own drink, although they usually can’t be bothered. The sniffing is bothering me so I get them a drink. Then I prop their head back and have them sniff and I watch for the swallow.
Babies are a little trickier but totally possible. You can achieve the same thing by having them lay down and drink their bottle. Except you lift up their back until their head is tilted. If you’re nursing, put them in your lap and lean down to latch them on. Then lift up their back and sort of push their head down. By the time their little tummy is full, their nose should be clear. This is a very awkward position but SO MUCH more pleasant than sucking their noses out by any other method.
“We don’t want to show too much of your beautiful body to too many people.”
The reason children shouldn’t expose themselves in public are nuanced, and hard to explain. This is what I’ve come up with.
I don’t say, “Gross, put that thing away!” or “Don’t let anyone see your bottom!” because I don’t want to create difficulties later on. This addresses body safety while not sacrificing body image.
“Wait for your wife.”
When a child is playing with their anus, or penis, or labia, I try not to freak out about germs. I tell them to wait for their husband, or wife. I don’t want to say, “Don’t touch that!” or “Gross!” or “Do that later when you’re alone.” I’m saying it’s not okay now, but will be okay later with the person they have married.
It has been taught to me that it’s important to teach children the anatomical names of their private parts. “Private Parts” is not good enough. I usually take this opportunity when I am changing their siblings’ diaper or they are in the bath. I pretend I am not uncomfortable. It’s a lot easier when they are younger.
“You can hold hands when you like someone, you can kiss when you have a commitment with someone, and you can be intimate when you are married.”
“Be intimate with” is my euphemism for sex when talking to my children.
Children who know their parents’ values regarding pre-marital sex are more likely to adhere to them. I like this framework of what sort of touching is appropriate when. I share it with children when they are young. Like three. I like to be the first one to create the framework in their minds. They can judge everything they hear at school by my values, instead of having to impose my views for the first time on a teenager whose crush likes her back.
“You are important, going upstairs is important, going upstairs first is not important.”
Sometimes kids are looking for confirmation of their worth or worthlessness by ways people treat them. Like all of us. If they are served last at dinner, they wonder if they are loved least. So when my children fuss over a snub, I affirm they are important to me, I reassure them they will get their needs met, and I call out what is unimportant.
“If you want to see the color pink, look at your sister’s plate.”
The child has a plate. It is functional. But they are upset because they wanted a different color. Maybe it’s their way of taking control of a world that is so not theirs to control. Either way, I like teaching my children that they can manufacture their own happiness. They don’t have to own something to get happiness out of it.
Also, when we walk by something tempting at the grocery store and they ask for it, I reach out and pretend to grab one, like a cookie. Then I offer it to them. Sometimes they take it. If they don’t, I pretend to eat it. I truly pretend. I close my eyes and imagine what it would taste like; what it would feel like to chew. I swear, I can get 80% of the enjoyment from just pretending (with 0% of the calories and 0% of the dollars.) You have to allow yourself get pleasure out of it. And you can.
“Guess and I’ll tell you.”
This is my go-to for when kids ask me how to spell things, or the answer to a non-homework math problem. I think it’s a worthwhile exercise for them to guess, and then hear the correct answer. I respond with the same tone whether they get it right or not.
“Try three times and then I’ll do it for you.”
I love this one for toddlers. When they are buttoning or zipping, I have them try three times. If I tell them to try three times while I watch, it communicates that I don’t need them to actually button the thing. I just want them to get practice. Practicing will make their little fingers stronger, which is important. Kids with fine motor control do better in Kindergarten than kids with just knowledge of numbers and letters.
Sometimes they give three half-hearted attempts, sometimes they buckle down and do it themselves on the second try. They get so happy when that happens, and it happens often.
Child psychologist Erikson said that toddlers are working on Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt. Their stage in life is about being autonomous.
Self-confidence comes from thinking you can do things. Fake, dangerous, fixed mindsets of self-confidence come from parents telling children they are smart. Real confidence in self is built on many experiences when they, in fact, did things for themselves.
“Wow! You tried so hard!”
I praise my children more when they struggle, and less when they are successful. Children repeat behaviors they are rewarded for, and I want them to try hard. I don’t want them to think it’s embarrassing to have to try. If children are rewarded for being smart (which is really just looking smart) then they will try all their lives to look smart. Can you picture a lifetime of trying to look smart? You don’t take challenges, because whenever you do something difficult you look dumb at the beginning. You lie and you cheat. You give up quickly.
But can you also imagine a lifetime of striving? Of embracing the struggle?
“Brauns Keep Trying”
I want it to be part of my children’s identity that they keep trying.
This is not, “Brauns never give up” because sometimes it’s a good idea to give up. But after you’ve rested, tweaked your plan, gathered more resources or courage, you can keep trying.
The best way to find something is to clean up. And if you still don’t find it, at least you have a clean house.”
When a toy goes missing, you have to pick up everything to look underneath it. It’s going to be only 10% more effort to put it where it actually goes. And then you won’t forget you already looked under it, and pick it up again to check under it a second or third time.
And if you don’t find it, you don’t feel like you wasted an hour.
If it takes more than 10% extra effort to put something away, we need to talk about decluttering your house.
“Try not to worry too much.”
I have a lot of worriers. I also have no idea where they got that trait either.
I like this phrase because it introduces balance. It acknowledges that a little worry is good, but it gently teaches them that too much worry is bad.
It’s like a river. Floating down the center is very pleasant. But if you get too close to each bank, you’ll get in trouble. One side is chaos and the other is rigidity. Both are dangerous.