4 Phrases That Kids Need to Hear

Put these in your anti-spoiling, resilience-building parental toolkit.

young child tying shoe laces with colourful socks
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The words we use with our children are powerful. They paint a mental picture of the world, incite fear or instill hope, push them to grow or hold them back. All too often, parents throw out phrases that do more harm than good, such as constantly telling kids to "be careful," instead of teaching them to be aware of their surroundings or solve their own problems.

As a parent, there are a few key phrases that I use with my kids on a regular basis. I like to use these phrases because they're catchy, the kids are more likely to remember them than if I deliver a lecture, and they offer a quick response that packs a lot of meaning into just a few words. (We've discussed them all in greater detail at another point in time, so the kids know what I'm talking about.)

1. "You can do it."

Some kids are fiercely independent from the start, but many others are quite happy to let mom or dad do everything for them, whether it's cutting up food, getting something to drink, putting on clothes, or tying shoelaces. Parents continue to do these tasks long after the child should've learned, just because it's easier or faster in the moment, but this ends up creating more work for the parents because the kid isn't learning independent skills. 

That's why I often tell my kids, "You can do it," "I know you can do it," or the somewhat stronger version, "Do it yourself!" Some parents might think it's harsh, but I see it as active encouragement, an extra push to try something that may have seemed initially intimidating. The look of pride on their faces when they've managed to do it makes it worthwhile.

2. "We're all out."

This one applies only to children who are currently surrounded by abundance. For these (lucky) ones, there are toys and snacks aplenty, unlimited stimulation with devices and social media and playdates, and a relative life of ease. These are wonderful things to have, but they can lead to a sense of entitlement and lack of appreciation.

So how does one prevent children from becoming spoiled? There are many possible answers to that question, but I love one proposed by Lenore Skenazy, founder of Let Grow and author of "Free Range Kids." In her book she shares a "simple, brilliant anti-spoiling trick" that someone told her friend: "Every week, run out of one thing. Orange juice, cereal – whatever. It's a way to get kids used to not always having exactly what they want exactly when they want it."

Tell them, "We're all out," and don't rush to the store to replace it. Let them experience even the tiniest bit of withdrawal in order to have greater appreciation on the next grocery day.

3. "We can't afford that."

Along the anti-spoiling lines, this is a lesson that will serve children well for the rest of their lives. Just because you want something (and everyone else seems to have it) does not mean you can have it, too. And if you really need or want it, then you'd better start saving until you can afford it.

Parents should not hesitate or feel apologetic about not being able to buy anything and everything for their children. In fact, doing so will likely set them up for financial failure down the road – and who wants that for their kid? It's best to learn this lesson from an early age. (Read: How to talk to kids about money)

4. "Don't go off with strangers."

This is what parents should be telling their kids, instead of the usual "Don't talk to strangers," which I despise. This annoying phrase suggests that everyone is a possible bogeyman (statistically unlikely) and gets in the way of children being comfortable asking for help when they actually need it. 

In her book Skenazy cites police officer Glen Evans, who teaches self-defense to kids and says, "When you tell your children not to talk to a stranger, you are effectively removing hundreds of good people in the area who could be helping them." 

Instead, tell them not to go off with strangers, no matter how nice they seem. The more comfortable a child feels communicating, standing up for their feelings, and asserting themselves, the safer they'll be.