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When someone else says something “wrong” to their children, it’s easy to identify. You cringe a bit, judge a bit. (Most likely, like me, you judged a bit more before you had kids of your own.) We all slip up. As my wife would be happy to attest, if the paparazzi followed me around town with my boy, they would catch me saying things I did not pick up from Mr. Rogers.

Knowing what to say isn’t always easy. It’s even more complicated when you are speaking to the people whose lives you have the most influence upon (not to mention when it feels like the entire grocery store checkout line is watching and listening intently). Take heart: while parenting perfection is indeed unattainable, I have a few fall-back phrases that can work wonders in kids.

Read on for three magic phrases for parents.


“Next time…”

I picked up this phrase up from clinical psychologist and early childhood educator Elinor Griffin. Her book, Island of Childhood, was written in the early ‘80s. It remains largely referenced for early childhood education training at the best university-based lab schools today, including Stanford University. Griffin, like other early childhood parenting experts, understood that discipline for young kids is really all about teaching and learning—in fact, the Latin derivative disciplina is translated as instruction or education. Somehow our society has gotten to think of discipline more in terms of punishment and training.

The idea for Griffin and other experts like Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline for Preschoolers, is to treat mistakes as learning opportunities. The adult’s role is to gently help children translate and absorb the lesson—the goal being to learn from it, and improve in future endeavors. Which brings us to our first phrase: “Next time.” It’s a great one to get used to saying. I can’t even avoid writing it here: the next time your child breaks a rule, crosses a line, or makes any mistake, instead of punishing her, talk about what happened, why it happened, and what we can do better next time.

Notice I said “we.” The more you create an atmosphere where we’re all in this together and we’re learning as we go, the better! When the focus is on solutions and learning, children are encouraged to strive for improvement in the future. “Next time” helps them get there. Griffin explains, “Hearing this, he thinks of himself as a success (tomorrow), rather than a failure today.”

Incidentally, if you want to build unity and hit home the idea that you are all working together, you might follow the phrase “next time” with the contraction “let’s.” “Next time” and “let’s” go together like peanut butter and jelly—with no allergens or added sugar! With younger children, just combine them and let it roll: “Next time, let’s not throw the ball in the house so we don’t break anything,” or “Next time, let’s not hit our friend so we don’t hurt them.”

You might have noticed the word “so” snuck in there twice. It’s another useful add-on. Give a child a brief reason or explanation each time you set a limit. Why bother, you ask? Well for one, you instantly become more of a teacher and less of a dictator. (Who would you rather take input from?) You also instill your values and expectations. In short, you treat your child with respect. When you do that, he will more likely treat you with mutual respect. It’s called the Golden Rule for a reason.

With older children, the phrase “next time” maintains its value; just add a question mark at the end—inviting their input. “What will you do next time?” or “What can you say next time so that doesn’t happen?”  Convey with your tone and your language that things can be fixed. Create a dialogue and keep the focus on solutions and future improvement. Griffin elaborates, “Focusing on ‘next time,’ of course, does more than help a child feel better about himself. It serves as a review and a preparation and is thus real teaching.” Hard to argue with that.


“In this family…”

The next phrase I acquired at a family camp I was attending last summer. A therapist made a brief side note in a lecture regarding juvenile diabetes and peer pressure. She explained that a parent can use the phrase, “in this family” to help him define his family’s morals and practices. Makes perfect sense. If you haven’t felt the need for this phrase yet, just you wait until your child is in school. You’ll want to keep it handy. Write it on your cell phone case if that helps. Better yet, just write it on your forehead with a red Sharpie. Trust me, you’re going to need it.

Your child is going to adamantly declare that Jenna has Fruity Pebbles at snacktime everyday! And Anthony has all ten Star Wars movies! That’s your cue. The earlier you get them used to hearing it the better. Confidently explain how “In this family…” Go ahead and follow it with the pronoun “we” and eventually the word “because, ” so we keep those respect/same-boat threads weaving away. Soon you’ll all be holding hands and knitting quilts. OK, maybe not, but you will be getting everyone on the same page by defining your family’s mutual goals and morals. Eventually they’ll see the light (when they have kids of their own perhaps).


“How did you do that?”

The final phrase I want to share is a fun one, with lots of room for variations and creativity. Speaking of creativity, that’s what it’s all about. The “next time” (there’s that phrase again) your child shows you something he made, react as you feel fit, but go ahead and add the question: “How did you do that?” You can emphasize the word “how” or the word “do” or even “that.” Mix it up a bit. Keep it fresh. (Might be best not to emphasize the word “you” though.)

This is a practice I read about when I was teaching young children at Stanford’s Bing Nursery School. It was mainly developed and shared by George Forman, professor of education at the University of Massachusetts. He is highly respected in early childhood education circles—you know, people who strive to understand and encourage deeper thinking in young children. Wait, you’re in that circle too now. Welcome!

The aim behind asking children “how” they did something is to get them to focus on the process of their work. Asking them to chronologically take you through the steps is a great cognitive exercise—good for memory and language development as well as story-telling skills. As Forman explains in his article, “Helping Children Ask Good Questions,” “When a teacher has practiced this art of revisiting, the children will learn to reflect and to re-construct their understandings.”

That’s all well and good for the teacher in you, but your child will delight when the parent in you is showing genuine interest in her creations. Try it. The next time you see something your child made, ask him, “How did you do that?” Don’t feel pressure to be amazed. If you are, then by all means: express yourself. But the general idea is to show you care about your child’s abilities, interests and ideas. The goal is to get them to think more deeply—nothing wrong with that.

Keep these phrases in the back of your mind and take your time with it (incidentally “take your time” is another good one for all of us). For parents, practice may never make perfect, but patiently striving to do our best is a worthy goal. These phrases can help. The “next time” you’re at a birthday party, and your child stomps his foot and says, “But Max gets to have three pieces of cake!” just calmly explain, “In this family, we try to eat healthy so we can grow up strong.” When he walks away knowingly, your friend will ask you, “HOW did you do THAT?”

Somewhere in a big room with a long table and a bunch of chairs, some guys decided the way to fix our failing education system in America was to cram all the curriculum down to younger children quicker and sooner.

These visionaries went on to conclude that it would be a good idea to test all those children and, based on those results, reward some schools and penalize some teachers. Teachers felt the pressure so they taught more children faster. They needed more children to be more ready when they started kindergarten in the first place. So parents felt the pressure and decided to hold most of their children back until they were “ready” for kindergarten.

If you have a preschooler right now you know all too well about this pressure. Bet you’re stressed about whether your child will be ready. Hoping your school will bring him up to speed? Me too. But there’s plenty parents can be doing at home to help prepare their children for kindergarten.

Most parents immediately think of numbers, letters and colors when they think of early childhood education and kindergarten preparedness. But any preschool or kindergarten teacher will tell you, there’s much more to it. There are social and emotional elements that are much-less quantifiable than the cognitive aspects of development, but just as integral to a child’s performance in school.

The good news is there are many ways you can help prepare your child for kindergarten in your home on a daily basis. You don’t even have to go out of your way really. Just be a bit more alert to learning opportunities. Keep in mind that in order for the machine that we prefer to call our schooling system to operate effectively, children will mostly have to be able to focus, follow directions and respect others.

That’s where you come in:

If you demonstrate to them that you respect their interests and abilities, they will be more eager to share them with you. Of course they are all different and all develop different skills at different rates and times. Funny- no one told those guys that at the long table with chairs when they decided to cram everything down to our five-year-olds’ brains. Good thing our children have us around to help.

Do you dread the time between when your kids get home from school and dinnertime? Are fights, yelling and crying more inevitable than death and taxes? Then you, my friend, have fallen victim to the deep, dark and mysterious black magic of the witching hour. Before you call your tax adviser, I’ve got some concrete advice to help break the nasty spell. No longer will you be the Wicked Witch of the West. Just keep these tips in mind, tap your glitteriest red shoes together and say it with me: “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home …”

We all long for a place where there isn’t trouble, somewhere over the rainbow. By now you know parenting isn’t always a romantic love story. No doubt it will be an action/adventure, but you can help it be less of a suburban drama. Anytime things start spinning out of control, take charge. Huddle up and make a plan. Be the director in your own family classic. Like Dorothy, you may awake to find that you needn’t look any farther than your own backyard to find your heart’s desire. Because if it isn’t there, you never really lost it to begin with.

So you’ve got yourself a little toddler there – good times. Dana Carvey once quipped “They’re not so bad, just keep M&M’s in your pocket and feed ’em here and there.” If only it were so easy. What makes them so terrible sometimes? That answer is not as mysterious as it sometimes seems (e.g., in the eye of a tantrum at Target checkout). Think about it – right now while you’re calm and not tantrumming back at them. What are they grappling with that we have learned and hence take for granted? Two things: they don’t know how to communicate yet and they don’t know how to manage the overwhelming emotions they’re experiencing for the first time. Wouldn’t that make you want to freak out?

Well, the next time your toddler does, take solace in the fact that you have choices on how to react. What’s more, if you make the “right” choices, they’re gonna’ freak out less and less. I’m going to elaborate but first, allow me to establish some irrefutable truths of human nature – truths that will light your way in your quest to curb your toddler’s seemingly unruly behavior and hence bring you more peace and quiet.

  1. Human beings wish to be treated with respect. It’s innate and it’s evident as early as one year. If you want your child to heed your guidance, you will want to treat him with respect.
  2. Children don’t naturally want to “misbehave.” Sure they’re wired to test a bit, but if they do it repeatedly it’s because they have been conditioned to or have not been taught how else to behave.
  3. The word “discipline” has a latin meaning of “instruction, knowledge.” “Disciple” means “learner.” (please note the absence of the terms “training” or “punishment.”)
  4. Young children learn best by modeling behavior.
  5. “Anger is the enemy of instruction.” OK, it’s a quote from eleven-time NBA championship coach Phil Jackson, but I’m putting it here in the irrefutable truths section. Think about it. Frustration and anger just distract humans from attaining messages.

Now, watch how these do’s and don’ts flow seamlessly from these truths. The next time your toddler is faced with a challenge – be it physical, social, emotional, cognitive or all of the above – and proceeds to lose her marbles, keep these do’s and don’ts in mind:

The hardest part in all of this is keeping your own emotions under control when your child is pushing your buttons (see – didn’t you like me better when I understood you?). But if you can manage to do more of these “do’s” and less of these “don’ts,” you’ll find your child will internalize the lessons sooner. That’ll give you more time to read parenting articles – joy!

It’s so easy to slip into the discouraging parental mode – they give us so many opportunities! That makes it all the more important to make a conscious effort to encourage whenever we can. Trust me, they’ll be more apt to listen when they know you’re on their side. Wouldn’t you be?

Believe- It all starts here. You can motivate and energize your child simply by believing in her. It will color all of your interactions and buoy your child’s determination and self-confidence.

Articulate- Don’t be shy – we’re all family here! You want to encourage your child? Tell him clearly you believe in him and formally acknowledge his efforts. Help him get in touch with his intrinsic pride by asking him how he feels when he achieves. Express yourself!

Listen!- No greater gift you can give your child than your undivided attention and admiration. You’ll be bolstering her language development, emotional development and social development all be lending your enthusiastic ears. This age-old practice (listening) works for toddlers as well as teens!

Model “Can-Do”- Confidence is contagious! Monkey see – monkey do. All that jazz! Stay positive! Believe in yourself and deliver life lessons to your child firmly and directly. Treat your own mistakes as learning opportunities and she will too.

Break it Down!- Your toddler frustrated? Yeah, they do that. Remember it’s their first encounters with these emotions. We take it for granted that we have internalized the process of finding solutions. Help young children by breaking tasks down into smaller, digestible steps. Applaud his effort along the way.

Play Socrates- Encourage their independence by refraining from the natural inclination to fix everything. Rather, ask open-ended, thought-provoking questions that scaffold your child to her own discoveries and conclusions!

Don’t Discourage-It bears mentioning. Really no need for you to constantly be the bad guy. Talk about the natural consequences of his choices and gently help him learn to be accountable. Deliver expectations in an encouraging manner. Eventually he will understand you’re in his corner. In time, he’ll make rational decisions that benefit himself.

Plant seeds of encouragement today! You and your child will reap immediate and continuous rewards!