What you should say to your kids


First aired on The Morning Edition (11/05/12)

Kids say the darndest things. But maybe parents should pay a little more attention to what they're saying to their children.

Communication consultant and conversation expert Paul Axtell didn't think much about this until a participant at a corporate training session brought him an article about the 30 most common things parents say to kids. As you may have guessed, "No," and "Stop!" are on that list.

This got Axtell to look at his interaction with his children, then eight and nine.

"I noticed two things [about what I was saying to them.] Some things were negative that I would have preferred not to have said to them, like 'How many times do I have to tell you?' Then I also noticed things that I was not saying, things like 'I'm sorry,' things like 'I love you, I like you as a person.' Things that were negative and I should take out, and things that would have been more positive that I did not put in."

Axtell outlined his revamped approach in his book Ten Powerful Things to Say to Your Kids: Creating the Relationship You Want with the Most Important People in Your Life. During a recent interview on The Morning Edition, he revealed some specific things parents ought to include in their conversations with their children. First, it's important to get across to your kid that you not only love them, but you recognize them as individuals.

"Clearly, 'I love you' is the foundation. It's unconditional, it doesn't dissipate, it doesn't disappear, it's always there even when mistakes are made. That's very, very important and some of us should say it more. 'I like you' is a completely different conversation. It signals to the child that you like who they are as a person and how they're turning out, and you appreciate being with them, and that's important too."

Axtell also suggests asking children questions and considering their opinions early on in their lives. Naturally, young people can feel they lack personal agency, as their parents make most of their decisions for them. Getting them involved in the decision-making process, if only a little, can help them feel more comfortable with it as they gain more independence and responsibilities as teenagers.

powerful-thing-kids.jpg"I think we should be asking, 'What do you think about the vacation we've got?'  'What do you think we should do this weekend?' 'We're trying to lay out supper for the week, what do you think?' 'What are your thoughts?' Because kids need to know that they have influence."

One thing that Axtell believes parents say too much of to their kids is that they're smart. In his mind, praising a child's intellect should be an occasional recognition, not a constant reassurance.

"Clearly it's better to grow up thinking you're smart than not, [but] let's not get being smart to be the primary link with success. I would like success to be linked up with hard work, practice and being a great learner. Because at some point, life gets tough, and when you fail, I want you to get back to 'Maybe I need to work harder,' 'Maybe I need to put more time in, 'I need to learn something about this. In fact, one of the great questions in life is 'What do I need to be learning now?'"