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Powerful Things to Say to Your Kids

Originally posted in November of 2012

I've long believed that the words we choose in everyday conversation and correspondence play a significant role in shaping our relationships.

For example, from the time that our boys began asking questions to which some parents might answer "because I said so," Margaret and I have tried to preface our answers with "because from my experience, that would lead to..."

The idea is to use words that show respect rather than condescension, faith instead of distrust, and interest rather than annoyance. Put another way, to build and maintain healthy relationships, I think it's pretty clear that it can only help to choose words that carry a spirit of genuine care versus disdain.

So agrees Paul Axtell, author of Ten Powerful Things to Say to Your Kids, a must-read for parents, grandparents, and actually anyone who wants to cultivate relationships that are bound by trust and fondness.

Here's a look at a few key phrases that Paul encourages all of us to adopt in everyday conversation:

I like you.

It's important that our kids and those we're closest to know that we love them. But it's probably just as important for them to know that we like them.

We're supposed to love our kids. When we say that we like them, we're communicating that we actually enjoy spending time with them, that we would choose to be with them even if they were not our children. This sentiment communicates that we appreciate the way they go about things, which is a completely different flavor than obligatory parental love.

You're really becoming an effective learner.

It's far more common for us to tell our kids how smart they are. This is fine, but smart connotes some innate trait that they haven't worked hard to acquire. It's more empowering to communicate that we are impressed with how quickly they can learn and problem solve. This plants the seed of understanding that nothing of value comes easy, that success in any sphere of life comes from hard work - it's not something that you're born with or are incapable of ever experiencing.

If we tell our kids that they're smart, when they come across a problem that they can't solve, they might wonder if we were wrong about how smart they are - in this state, confidence can plummet.

But if we praise them for being effective learners, it will be more natural for them to see problems that they can't initially solve as opportunities to exercise their learning skills.

Being smart vs. being an effective learner - what a huge distinction.

We all make mistakes.

This is one that I have been all over from the time that our firstborn could understand. I grew up with first generation, old school Korean parents who were great in some ways, but they were and still are incapable of sharing any of their personal frailties with me and my sisters. This simply wasn't done in their culture and generation. For multiple reasons, moms and dads of my parents' generation didn't have a chance to realize that there were potential benefits to teaching their kids that they, too, made mistakes.

Mistakes are only helpful if we actually learn from them. And for most kids, it's easier to learn from their mistakes if they aren't weighed down by the feeling that they aren't living up to their parents' standards.

With this in mind, I don't hesitate to apologize to my kids if I lose my temper or get impatient with them. I think that giving them a heartfelt apology when necessary helps them discern mature versus immature behavior; it also helps them learn how to graciously accept a sincere apology, which is another valuable life skill to have.

If the idea of choosing our words mindfully resonates with you, I think you'll enjoy Paul's book - you can read reviews on it here:

Ten Powerful Things to Say to Your Kids

And you can visit Paul's website here:

Ten Powerful Things to Say to Your Kids

In contemplating the consequences of the words that we choose and the spirit with which we communicate them, I'm reminded of a tennis tournament that I entered about a year ago. In the second round, I was matched up with a talented 14-year old junior at our tennis club. It was a hard-fought contest, which he deservedly won 7 to 6. As we shook hands at the net, he looked me in the eyes and with a spirit of genuineness that attracted all of my attention, told me that I was "a very worthy opponent."

I was already happy to have participated in a well contested set, but to have this young fellow pay me such a bona fide compliment, well, I immediately developed fondness for him and his family. I mean, how many 14-year olds have that kind of awareness and the confidence to express such a thought?

It's just not that common an experience in my everyday circles to have someone say something with a level of earnestness that puts a halt to the stream of thoughts in my mind and causes me to fully process what has just been felt and said. So it's natural for me to take notice when people are clearly thoughtful of the words that they choose and the tone with which they deliver them, and I'm guessing that this is the case for most others, especially our kids.

With all of that said, I think it's important to remember what Maya Angelou once pointed out:

"People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

I suppose the ideal goal is to be loving first, and then to work at expressing our good intentions with words that nurture.

If you have any thoughts on this topic that you'd like to share, I invite you to do so via the comments section below. Thanks for reading. And please consider having a conversation on this topic with parents, grandparents, teachers, and coaches in your life.


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Thank you, Dr. Kim!

I enjoy reading all your letters!

Very informative! Good sense!


In my 5th grade class many years ago, my teacher wrote on my report card that, "I am slow in understanding". I have spent the rest of my life proving him right. Those words stuck in my head and I could not seem to overcome them. I've allowed myself to be slow to understand information until I get it. It may be inconvenient for the instructor but at least I don't give up.

I was fortunate to realize early in life that most people need and usually deserve respect and appreciation. If "what goes around, comes around" we will earn respect and appreciation in return. Just by treating people right it gives me a feeling of self worth.

I would like to add, that it is important to tell your children how proud you are of their achievements. And to say it was a hug.

Hi. This is a subject very close to my heart. I cannot believe what some parents say to their kids and also what some parents say about their kids in front of them! Parents also do not realize that a baby, unless it is deaf and blind, can still hear and see. From the day my boys were born my husband and I made sure that we showed them, not only love, but respect. I have never reprimanded my kids in front of anyone. When they were growing up if they did anything that I did not approve of, I would call them over and then gently and privately explain my reasoning and off they would go and they would listen because they respected me, knowing I respected them. Our boys are teenagers now and we have always spoken nicely to them and they speak nicely back to us. The teen years have been a joy. If you were looking after someone else's child or children it is unlikely you would treat them with disrespect, so why treat your own children any differently. Speak nicely to your kids and they will grow up to be confident, emotionally mature adults.

Carol K : I absolutely loved your comment and had to tell you that you have just inspired me. We have 3 boys (under 6) so still very little, but as any mom I'm always looking for ways to better parent them (keeping in mind the teenage years to come) and your comment gave me hope. Your approach to teaching respect is wonderful and definitely something I am going to use with my boys in the years to come. Feel free to share more :-)

Hi Christine. Thanks for your feedback regarding my comments. You must have your hands full with 3 little ones. You have asked me to share more. Firstly, don't think that kids are too young to understand, so you delay setting ground rules. As soon as my kids could walk, they were putting their dirty clothes in the wash basket and tiding up and I mean that quite literally. I would clap for them and tell them how clever they were. Don't wait till they are teenagers and then nag them to do this. It should be a way of life from a young age. Make it fun and PRAISE them! Praising kids builds confidence. Be careful not to nag your kids ALL day. They will switch off. Try and limit saying NO! and DON'T DO THAT! to times when they are in danger and the rest of the time speak to them in a calm way or best still rather distract them if they are doing something you don't approve of but always EXPLAIN things to them. Kids need discipline and structure. Sit down and write down what you expect of them and then call a family meeting, no matter how small they are. Start somewhere. The sooner the better. Good luck! Carol K.

Something to add (From the book "Learned Optimism" by Martin Seligman)- make sure kids hear you explain bad events that happen either to you or to them with an optimistic tone i.e. the cause of the event is temporary, specific (limited to just a small part of your world) and external (not someone's fault but external factors caused it). Don't use words like "Always" and "Never" and be careful how you criticize people's actions - don't make it personal - criticize the behaviour not the person. Kids will learn pessimism from their primary caregiver at a very early age - they will lose their natural optimism and be at much higher risk of developing depression in the future because of it.

I always appreciate your view on family and relationships! but this one is especially helpful for me today. Thank you for your work on this site.