5 Things I Never Say To My Kids (And What I Say Instead)

don’t say these things to my kids
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1. I’m so proud of you.

A while back, I met an older gentleman at the library book drop-off. He had hiked it over by foot from the neighboring retirement village. Fair warning: I’m not sure if he was with it or not, but nonetheless, he taught me something that day I continue to use.

We struck up a mini-conversation about his grown son, who he explained was doing creative film projects that were gaining public attention. I said, “Wow, that’s really cool. I bet you are so proud.” To which, without a moment’s pause, he replied, “No, no. Never proud. Pride is very dangerous. When I become proud, it becomes about me. I don’t tell him I’m proud of him. Instead, I say I’m happy for him.”

You’d laugh at the lengths I’ve gone to unpack this interaction. First of all, I have some beef with the word “happy” (as you’ll see below). Secondly, I’ve thought a lot about the words “proud” and “happy” and how really, for me, their implications aren’t that separate. I’ve taken turns concluding that that guy was a word-mincing stranger with believing him to be exquisitely brilliant.

Somewhere along the way, I think I finally realized the distinction he was making and that it perhaps has more to do with the prepositions in the phrasology. See for yourself if you sense the difference:

OF/WITH

I’m proud of you.

I’m happy with you.

I’m pleased with you.

I’m thrilled with you.

FOR

I’m proud for you.

I’m happy for you.

I’m pleased for you.

I’m thrilled for you.

I can say, because of that stranger, that I now use “for” exclusively.

Listen: I know it feels squabbly. Yet squabble, I shall.

Because I do think our kids can sense when our posture towards them is similar to how we might relate with a circus monkey. Those itty bitty words “of” and “with” do that. They say, “You did it! And since I am your trainer, the one with the peanuts in my pocket, I reap the rewards! Your success = my fortune! Pat on head.” Then, put the monkey back out there to win more happiness for you.

Kids also sense when our posture towards them is similar to how we might relate with a puppy. The word “for” does that. It says, “You did it! It’s all you, kid! Don’t it feel good? I’m so lucky to share in celebration with you over this. You get all the credit, bud! You deserve to pat yourself on the back!” Then, parent and puppy tackle each other in a lick-fest.

Let’s all be more adorers of puppies, less trainer of monkeys.

(Just because I gleaned a whole different valuable lesson that I don’t want to keep to myself: This guy, when I hollered my farewell through the van window, “Have a great day!”, corrected me: “No, I’ll make it a great day. Having a great day is a passive activity.” HA! I’m convinced he was an old school professor of grammar.)

2. Be happy.

I try really hard not to harp on happiness.

“Happy” is so very American, something valued very highly in this country. It’s all at once perceived as a right (due to us) and a destination (absent until we earn it).

The truth is that Happy, as a feeling, is elusive and temporary. It comes and it goes and it just plain ole doesn’t stay for long. In fact, the tighter we hang onto its tail, the more aggressively it tries to get away. So that leaves us grappling after something that would have been pleased to come back on its own (after a short snack break) but that instead, intimidated by our obsession, lurks tentatively at a distance with its ears up and tail still soar.

Poor thing.

Happiness can’t stand that we want to force it, control it, leash it.

To find out how this all applies to our kids, all we have to do is watch the movie Inside Out. I’m sure you would agree that the take-away from the movie is this: Honor all your feels. I think the story nails it with what happens when kids (and adults) don’t honor all their feels. Riley shows us by shutting down. Her emotional control center CANNOT TAKE THE DENIAL. And so, it refuses to produce anything, feel anything. No good. (For those of you who haven’t seen it – don’t fret —  I promise the movie doesn’t end there.)

Here’s what we get to say instead of “be happy” to our kiddos:

“Be well.”

People in many non-Western cultures have lots of practice with Wellness. I’m learning that wellness is understood and enacted within those cultures as completely separate from happiness…

WHAT FREEDOM!

(To illustrate our culture’s predicament: how many of us experience unnecessary suffering simply because we repeatedly encounter the American-obsessed thought that we should feel happy? If you could see me, you’d know I am raising my hand high).

Wellness, after all, understands sadness and angry and confused and nervous and scared and upset and frustrated and disappointed and is all like, “Hi Sadness! Hi Angry! Hi Confused! Hi Nervous! Hi Scared! Hi Upset! Hi Frustrated! Hi Disappointed! Whazzup?” Wellness eats unbiasedly from the emotion buffet. Remember how Riley’s childhood imaginary friend Bing Bong only settled from his grief at Riley having outgrown him once he sat down with Sadness?

When we promote Wellness, we get to show the Rileys in our lives how to appreciate the wild animal of Happiness when it comes in close for a nibble out of their hands and then peacefully release their attachment to it when the critter decides to move on for a while.

That, my friends, is Well.

3. Do your best.

Here’s why “Do your best” bugs me: because “best” to me is like infinity on the number line. A brief math review: you could start counting from zero this very second and you would die not having finished. That’s what infinity means; there is no end. And “best” has that same quality.

In my own life, particularly as a parent, I’ve often exhaled with a “Well, I can say I did my best…” and I get about three seconds of peace before a voice says, “But really, was it really your best? Be honest, you coulda done more.” There’s always more. There are more hours you coulda stayed up before hitting the pillow. There’re more books and information you coulda digested before making a decision. There’re more miles you coulda clocked on the treadmill.

Our kids, especially if they’re of the perfectionist, achieving variety, will eventually catch on to this trouble. They’ll feel caught in the paradox of “best” being something they’ve been told they ought to strive for and “best” being something they can never with honesty say they reached. Because, like a number line, there’s no finite marker that concludes, “CONGRATULATIONS, best was reached!”

I say teach this: Plot a point. Find sand and draw a line. Stamp down a marker. Dangle a ribbon across a finish line. We have got to encourage our kids to decide what their fixed cut-off point of labor will be, how far they want to and are willing to go. More, we’ve got to show them how to do this EACH SEPARATE TIME they commit to an endeavor.

Now if you are thinking this approach is lazier, easier, or more cop-outty, you’re slightly – okay, ALL – wrong. Because it requires way, way more self-reflection and assessment and planning than the blanket mandate “do your best” does, primarily because teaching the marker’s transiency – conveying to your kids that their bull’s eye gets to move according to each pursuit’s value and placement and season in their lives – means we are instructing them to actively (and aggravatingly) recreate the wheel of discernment each time. And doing that is freaking hard, requiring kids to know themselves with great intimacy.

In this way, your kids might find themselves wondering:

“Is falling asleep while standing upright at the bus stop becoming so habitual that neighbors are beginning to question my sobriety? I will plot my current pursuit’s marker accordingly.”

“Is family life so high-drama at the moment that I find Jerry Springer’s guests deplorably boring by comparison? I will plot my current pursuit’s marker accordingly.”

“Am I bursting with such ample amounts of ambition, energy, and sass that a gorilla couldn’t hold me back? I will plot my current pursuit’s marker accordingly.”

Young peeps who thoughtfully distribute their effort according to their lives’ status and their pursuits’ importance (even if sometimes the markers get set at “good enough”) look infinitely spritelier and more assured than those limping along into infinity in pursuit of a mirage called Best that they can never quite tack down.

4. Don’t give up.

The message this sends when we say it to our kids, I worry, is not just that they ought to stick with the things worth striving for – the grueling track work outs to become faster runners, the menial apprentice work necessary to earn one’s stripes in a profession, the heavy lifting of submitting application after application and essay after essay to dream colleges in the face of rejection letters – but that they also must never stop something they’ve started.

I feel it’s a little delicate to discuss this very topic, since – at least by my estimation – a new generation of parents is rightfully tapping into a tool the previous couple generations didn’t harness as successfully: Grit. Grit is quite the trending thing right now – AND IT SHOULD BE. We should be teaching kids that pushing through adversity is absolutely the only path to a courageous and meaningful life. We should be telling tales, the whole and messy stories, of the tenacious characters behind all household names – the Walt Disneys, the Einsteins, the Wright brothers of our world – whose list of failures far outnumber the final success that landed them big.

We should give quitting a bad name.

It’s just that it’s not always bad.

Stuff changes. Sometimes it’s circumstances that’s doing the changing. Sometimes it’s us that’s doing the changing.

I’ve definitely started some stuff that was smart to stop, and I bet you have, too. (Raise your hand if you spent a year applying, getting vaccines, and packing for a two-year assignment in Africa with the Peace Corps, only to get there and realize a romantic relationship you rekindled back in the states weeks before departing was one you decided to risk seeing through in exchange for passing on what you thought was your lifelong dream of teaching math to wide-eyed students. P.S. Four kids and a goofy marriage later, I’m glad I decided to jump back over the pond for that guy.)

My point: Don’t persist just to persist. There is such a thing as persistence-turned-stupidity.

When my kids tell me their psyche’s are telling them to, “Abort,” “Change Course,” or “Quit,” the conventional wisdom police in my psyche wants to immediately counter with “No, no, no. DON’T QUIT!”

But what I’m learning to do instead is to coach them, “Listen deeply, my sweet: What is the tone of your “quit”? Is it a whisper? Or is it all lights-flashing-siren-bleeping-exclamation-mark-ending alarm? One is a request for space, a clearing of the path for something new. One is saying “ESCAPE IMMEDIATELY: THIS. SHIT. IS. TOO. HARD. AND. SCARY. FOR. US.”

Fear is loud, and inspiration is quiet.

So, here’s the formula to teach our little people:

Stick with stuff, even when it’s hard (and when fear is all loud and alarmy, simply place it as a background soundtrack, and get back to work.)

UNLESS…

Life changes or you change or your persistence to see through certain stuff was misguided to begin with.

THEN…

Listen to the quiet whisperings that inspire a compass-pivot.

THEN…

Be free, little birdy, be free!

5. Stop arguing!

Just kidding! I say this every other hour. (And let me continue to be real: Pretty much every numbered item here is about what I reach towards, not necessarily precisely what I’m actually doing.)

If you are lucky enough to have more than one kid living in the same physical space, then they’re going be mean to each other.

But what’s so wrong with that?

I was sitting in an Adirondack chair on my front lawn one late afternoon overseeing my three boys in a tussle of rage. (Note: this was not voluntary rough-housing – I’m pretty sure at least one was captured and crying) when a gentleman walking his dog approached. When his mouth opened, I was sure the words that came out would be some variation of, “Aren’t you going to do something about that?”

I wanted to hide.

Instead, he locked eyes with mine and offered, “I raised a couple of these myself. I always thought they shouldn’t fight. But they will. Trust me, they just will.”

I still think that day an angel with a silver mustache and a wiener dog came down from heaven just to tell me this. (And to verify this, I will say that I never saw that dude, nor his dog, in the neighborhood again. Clearly: Angel.)

If you’re anything like me, your tackling of your kids’ sibling rage towards one another vacillates between CUT THAT STUFF OUT YOU NEED EACH OTHER IN LIFE WHERE IS THE LOVE? And BE MEAN TO THE DEATH IT’S ALL PART OF GROWING UP YOU’LL FIGURE IT OUT. (Frankly, I’m also wildly forgiving of my inconsistent emotional states that lead to polar snaps on this subject, cuz, well, not everyone can be Ghandi).

In the end, I try to remember that I’m a somewhat mature adult and I’m mean towards my roommate all the time. I pick fights and argue and lose my cool with him. So, why shouldn’t I assume it to happen with kids whose brains and mediation skills are still dramatically underdeveloped? Sure, I don’t want them bickering nor causing one another physical pain. But, my Angel said it’s going to happen. So I may as well accept that it will.

When I’m at my wit’s end, I also try to remember that somewhere beneath the pummeling there are lessons happening. Tougher skin. Resiliency. A sharper edge in a less-soft-than-we’d-like-it world. I mean, at least if nothing else, they will have insults and punches at the ready whenever a real-life brawl in their future stirs up.

As for my lesson, I think it is simpler than I sometimes think I need to make it: Next time I’m in my Adirondack chair, I will (a) move the physical and psychological abuse my kids are issuing one another to the back yard (because not all neighbors are angels) and (b) put in my ear buds (because everyone knows calm can be more quickly realized when you replace horror-filled shrieks with classical music).