You probably wouldn't use old-school phrases like "Wait until your father gets home" or "I wish you were more like your sister" with your kids. But there are lots of less obvious ones that you should avoid, for their sake and yours.
Research has shown that tossing out a generic phrase like "Good girl" or "Way to go" every time your child masters a skill makes her dependent on your affirmation rather than her own motivation, says Parents advisor Jenn Berman, Psy.D., author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids. Save the kudos for when they're truly warranted, and be as specific as you can. Instead of "Super game," say, "That was a nice assist. I like how you looked for your teammate."
Practice makes perfect
It's true that the more time your child devotes, the sharper his skills will become. However, this adage can ramp up the pressure he feels to win or excel. "It sends the message that if you make mistakes, you didn't train hard enough," says Joel Fish, Ph.D., author of 101 Ways to Be a Terrific Sports Parent. "I've seen kids beat themselves up, wondering, 'What's wrong with me? I practice, practice, practice, and I'm still not the best.'" Instead, encourage your child to work hard because he'll improve and feel proud of his progress.
When your child scrapes his knee and bursts into tears, your instinct may be to reassure him that he's not badly hurt. But telling him he's fine may only make him feel worse. "Your kid is crying because he's not okay," says Dr. Berman. Your job is to help him understand and deal with his emotions, not discount them. Try giving him a hug and acknowledging what he's feeling by saying something like, "That was a scary fall." Then ask whether he'd like a bandage or a kiss (or both).
Your child dawdles over her breakfast, insists on tying her own sneakers (even though she hasn't quite mastered the technique yet), and is on pace to be late for school -- again. But pushing her to get a move on creates additional stress, says Linda Acredolo, Ph.D., coauthor of Baby Minds. Soften your tone slightly by saying, "Let's hurry," which sends the message that the two of you are on the same team. You can also turn the act of getting ready into a game: "Why don't we race to see who can get her pants on first?"
I'm on a diet
Watching your weight? Keep it to yourself. If your child sees you stepping on the scale every day and hears you talk about being "fat," she may develop an unhealthy body image, says Marc S. Jacobson, M.D., professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at Nassau University Medical Center, in East Meadow, New York. It's better to say, "I'm eating healthy because I like the way it makes me feel." Take the same tack with working out. "I need to exercise" can sound like a complaint, but "It's beautiful outside -- I'm going to take a walk" may inspire her to join you.
We can't afford that
It's easy to use this default response when your child begs you for the latest toy. But doing so sends the message that you're not in control of your finances, which can be scary for kids, says Jayne Pearl, the author of Kids and Money. Grade-schoolers may also call you on this claim if you turn around and make an expensive household purchase. Choose an alternative way to convey the same idea, such as, "We're not going to buy that because we're saving our money for more important things." If she insists on discussing it further, you have a perfect window to start a conversation about how to budget and manage money.
Don't talk to strangers
This is a tough concept for a young child to grasp. Even if a person is unfamiliar, she may not think of him as a stranger if he's nice to her. Plus, kids may take this rule the wrong way and resist the help of police officers or firefighters whom they don't know, says Nancy McBride, executive director for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Florida Regional Office, in Lake Park. Instead of warning her about strangers, bring up scenarios ("What would you do if a man you don't know offers you candy and a ride home?"), have her explain what she'd do, then guide her to the proper course of action. Since the vast majority of child-abduction cases involve someone a kid already knows, you might also adopt McBride's favorite safety mantra: "If anyone makes you feel sad, scared, or confused, you need to tell me right away."
Saying this while your child is balancing on the monkey bars at the playground actually makes it more likely that he'll fall. "Your words distract him from what he's doing, so he loses focus," says Deborah Carlisle Solomon, author of Baby Knows Best. If you're feeling anxious, move close to spot him in case he takes a tumble, being as still and quiet as you can.
No dessert unless you finish your dinner
Using this expression increases a child's perceived value of the treat and diminishes his enjoyment of the meal itself -- the opposite of what you want to accomplish, says Parents advisor David Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D., director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children's Hospital and author of Ending the Food Fight. Tweak your message along these lines: "First we eat our meal and then we have dessert." The wording change, though subtle, has a far more positive impact on your child.
Let me help
When your child is struggling to build a block tower or finish a puzzle, it's natural to want to give him a hand. Don't. "If you jump in too soon, that can undermine your child's independence because he'll always be looking to others for answers," says Myrna Shure, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology at Drexel University in Philadelphia and author of Raising a Thinking Child. Instead, ask guiding questions to help him solve the problem: "Do you think the big piece or the little one should go at the bottom? Why do you think that? Let's give it a try."
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Parents magazine