5 Language Hacks to Use With Young Children

Toddler Tips. Sometimes making small tweaks to your parenting language can have a huge impact. Nikki shares a few of her fav examples from keeping-a-tiny-human-alive gig.

I’ve always been fascinated with language. I pay incredibly close attention to the way people speak, and I love a good semantic argument. I believe the way we use language is powerful, and perhaps nowhere is this truer than in parenting. Anyone who’s had to explain to their preschooler that flicking water all over the bathroom mirror doesn’t count as “washing your hands” or that a sleeve of Oreo’s can’t be “dinner” knows this. Sometimes making small tweaks to your parenting language can have a huge impact, and I want to share a few of my favorite examples from my past 4 years of fumbling through this whole keeping-a-tiny-human-alive gig.

Instead of “Are you ready to go?” try “We’re leaving now, do you want to carry your backpack or your sippy cup?”

Kids freaking LOVE choices. It’s like toddler heroin. And developmentally, they need ample opportunities to make choices throughout their day to help them assert their independence, safely test boundaries, and learn about cause and effect. But sometimes our phrasing can shoot us in the foot, like in the “time to go” conundrum. Many parents (my husband included!) default to asking their toddler, “Are you ready to go?” when it’s time to leave somewhere. We think of it as a rhetorical question, but the toddler isn’t that linguistically savvy, so what we’ve really done is presented them with a choice they don’t actually have. And once they figure out you’re going to drag their butt to the car even though they’ve just asserted they’re not “ready” to leave, it’s going to be 0 to tantrum real quick. I had much more success when my daughter was in the 2-3 year old range, by first stating we were leaving, then offering her a “fun” choice in the same breath. It’s like rubbing their arm after ripping a band-aid off so it doesn’t sting as much.

Instead of “Pay attention” try “Eyes on me / Voice off / Quiet hands.”

I first learned about “what to do” directions during my teacher training program and have been faithfully using them ever since. One part of this approach is kids benefit from directions that are concrete and observable. Telling a kid to “pay attention” is way too abstract for a toddler, as well as many older kids, to grasp. A 2-year-old doesn’t know what it looks or feels like to “pay attention,” but they do know how to track someone with their eyes. You can even start making the connection between the concrete and abstract by saying, “We pay attention to someone by giving them our eyes and turning our voices off,” or “We get ready to go by putting on our shoes and picking up our toys.” I’m currently revisiting this concept with my 4-year old who often tunes out my voice when she’s playing or watching a movie. For a second there we were arguing an infinite loop of “But I didn’t HEAR you!” / “No, you’re not LISTENING” until I had to retreat to my bunker and figure out what the hell the observable components of listening are. I came back with “When you hear my voice, pause what you’re doing, look at me, and answer any questions I ask. That’s listening.”

Instead of “Stop running,” try “Use your walking feet.”

The other facet of “what to do” directions is positive framing, which is helpful for multiple reasons. First, it tells the kiddo what they SHOULD be doing rather than the dangerous/distracting/obnoxious thing they are currently engaged in. If your preschooler stops kicking you under the table at dinner just to turn around and start shooting peas out of their straw instead, no ground has been gained. What you want them to do is stop kicking you and start eating their mother flipping macaroni, so you need to include that in your direction – “Start eating your mother flipping macaroni.” Well, maybe not exactly that, but you get the idea. Another benefit of positive framing is it’s exactly that – positive. Telling a kid to stop running sends the message that they’ve already screwed up; telling them to use their walking feet gives them the chance to be successful at a task. Both directions accomplish the same goal. This one may seem extra nit-picky, but think about it – toddlers and preschoolers fail ALL THE TIME. They fail so hard at so many things every dang day, from turning door knobs to tying their shoes to crossing the street, and if we respond to each of those things with negatively-framed statements, we’re going to be drowning in a sea of “don’ts” and “no’s” and “stop’s” that will feel just as discouraging to them as it will to you. Using positive framing whenever possible has helped me alleviate those funky undertones and made my kiddo much more likely to respond well.

Instead of awkward silence, try “I’m feeling shy.”

This one is a bit different, in that it’s something I taught my daughter to say, not something I say to her. Like many kids, she can freeze up when meeting new people, especially adults who are overly talkative and all up in her space. I didn’t want to allow her to simply ignore them, but I also didn’t want to force her to talk to people if she didn’t want to, especially if they were strangers. I needed to give her a polite and age-appropriate phrase to give her an out for those situations, so I taught her to say “I’m feeling shy.”  This has worked marvelously for us, and usually goes over really well with the adults too. Aside from being a more polite response, it also teaches her to assess her own emotions and practice asserting her boundaries with others. Bonus #selfcare points!

Instead of “Why did you do that?” try “What happened?”

This is another concept I borrowed from my work in education, this time from a training we received on restorative justice practices in schools. When our kid does something disobedient or dangerous, asking them why they did it is rarely productive because young kids so often don’t know the answer to that. They’re little impulse monsters running around doing impulsive things. Starting with “What happened?” is both easier for kids to answer and less accusatory, making them more likely to pay attention to whatever logic you’re about to impart on why it’s not okay to shove gummy vitamins up your nose or paint your sister’s face with permanent marker. Once they tell you in their own words what happened, using follow-up questions like “And what happened next?” , “How did that make you feel?”, “How do you think Mom/Dad feels about that?”, and “How can we do that differently next time?” can de-escalate a child who may already be upset and teach them a process of reflection that will develop their empathy, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence.

The disclaimer to all this is, of course, that there are no true “hacks” that work for every child, and what stops my kid’s tantrum dead in its tracks may not do jack for yours. But the research behind the practices of choice-making and  self-reflection in early childhood education is compelling and time-tested, and sometimes all it takes is a simple change of word choice to get that ball rolling.

If you’re interested in learning more about communicating with your child (and having them actually listen to you), I highly recommend the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen (and Listen So Kids Will Talk).

What language hacks have worked with your kids? Comment and share the knowledge!

About Nikki 7 Articles
Nikki Mayeux is a writer, special educator, newbie urban homesteader, and mama living in New Orleans. When she’s not overthinking existential questions, she enjoys fitness and aerial arts, taking her daughter to the zoo, and taking way too many pictures with her plant identifier app.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Nikki, this is a great article that I can see myself referring back to time and again. It’s so interesting how we can (potentially) shift a situation just by changing a few words. I would definitely like to move away from saying to many negative things, and frame things my toddler is doing in a positive light. I also like your first hack. I am totally guilty of this, and when I ask my daughter if she’s ready, it usually takes us ages to get out the door. I’m going to try all of these! Of course, the trick is being conscious about what we say. It will take extra effort, but I believe it’s worth it.

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