Five Incredibly Stupid Things that Even Good Parents Sometimes Say to Their Kids

They get bigger, you know.
They get bigger, you know.

Parenting is easy. No, really, it is. All you have to do is keep the kid fed, clothed, sheltered, and safe. Oh, and teach the kid how to talk, and not to soil himself. That’s relatively easy stuff. Being a good parent? That’s really, really hard. It takes practice and discipline, you rarely get a break, and you never, ever get a vacation. But it’s the most important thing many of us will ever do. It’s not surprising that lots of parents, in moments of fatigue, frustration, or anger, say stupid stuff without thinking about it. Here are some of the stupid things that even good parents sometimes say, and why it’s not a great idea to say them.

“How many times have I told you not to…?”

The kid has done that thing that you don’t like, that you’ve told him not to do, and that you have corrected him for doing on many previous occasions. You’re mad about it, and feel the need to vent. You hear yourself ask, “How many times have I told you not to drink the ketchup from the bottle (or whatever it is)!?” This is a silly thing to say for many reasons.

First of all, your kid is not deliberately trying to annoy you. Honest. He just did the thing again without thinking about the consequences. That’s the secret to most of the stupid stuff kids do: they usually don’t think about consequences. You’re frustrated at the disobedience, true, but the frustration is your problem, and as the adult, you need to be able to handle it.

Next, It’s an implied insult. It’s not as bad as explicitly calling the kid stupid, but think about what you’re implying when you ask “How many times have I told you…?” You’re asking why the kid can be told not to do the thing over and over again, and he still can’t manage not to do it? Wow, he must be some kind of fool, right? While younger kids don’t really understand subtext, implications, and other niceties of rhetoric, they do pick up on tone of voice and facial expressions. When you ask this question, you’re probably going to be sounding pretty disdainful, and you sure won’t be smiling. Remember, the goal is to correct the kid’s behavior. You want him to feel bad about what he did, not about himself.

Finally, until your kid reaches a certain level of social and intellectual development, he’s not going to really understand the concept of the rhetorical question. Sooner or later, this question—this insulting question that has no answer—is going to prompt him to say something in response. Depending on how clever the kid is (and whether the kid has realized that it’s a stupid question in the first place), he could answer anything from “I don’t know,” to “Oh, about a million,” to my personal favorite, “Heck, I didn’t know I was meant to be keeping track!”

Which brings us to the next thing you’ll probably say:

“Don’t get smart with me!”

This one is just confusing. Most of the time, you want the kid to be smart. You’ve even probably praised her for her intelligence when she figured out how to do something, or mastered the alphabet, or read one of Dr. Suess’s books out loud to you. She’s learned that smart=good, and she learned that from you. And now you’re telling her that it’s bad to be smart? How does that work?

What you’re really trying to tell your kid is that you don’t like her insulting tone, which is pretty hypocritical, since you just said a fairly insulting thing to her. Kids are big on fairness (ask any first-grade teacher). While your kid might not be able to articulate her thoughts, I guarantee you that she’ll notice the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do nature of insisting that she speak respectfully to you while you’re saying disrespectful things to her.

I can already hear people scrolling past the rest of this article to rip me a new one in the comment section: “Kids have to respect their parents! The parent has to be in charge! You can’t let kids walk all over you!” Sure, sure, but think about this: what if your boss talked to you the way you talk to your kid? How would you feel about your boss? Would you respect your boss? Or resent her? Right.

Now think about this: Do you want your kid to respect you? Or resent you? Right. You’re the grown-up, remember? You need to be able to master your frustration and not take it out on your kid. You’ll win the battle, certainly: you’re bigger, you’re stronger, and you control every aspect of your kid’s life, from what she gets to eat to what she gets to wear. But you might just lose the war: a resentful kid won’t ask—and certainly won’t follow—your advice later in life. She won’t come to you with her problems if she’s grown up feeling worse about herself after talking to you.

Treating your kid with respect doesn’t mean being a pushover. It means being clear (saying “Don’t use that disrespectful tone” instead of “Don’t be smart”) and consistent (don’t use a condescending tone when speaking to your kids).

Kids can be hard to figure out. (Photo Credit: Birgit Grasmück)
Kids can be hard to figure out. (Photo Credit: Birgit Grasmück)

“Stop that or else!”

“Or else” is the problematic part of this one. The kid doesn’t know what “else” might be. If your kid is curious by nature (and what kid isn’t), he might keep doing it just to find out what will happen. And of course, your goal is to get him to stop, right? It’s better to give your kid a specific consequence for not stopping, and it’s much better to make the consequence directly relate to what the kid is doing. It’s best of all to give the kid an idea for something to do instead. For example, if he’s bouncing his superball in the living room, you could threaten to take the superball away, or you could say, “See the things your ball might knock over if you lose control of it? Can you think of a better place to bounce your superball?” Your kid will probably be able to think of a good place: maybe the driveway or the sidewalk.

If you must threaten a consequence, it should be specific, it should be logical, and above all, it should be plausible, unlike the following:

“If you don’t stop that, I’ll turn this car around and we won’t go to Disney World”

Empty threats are excellent—for stripping yourself of authority. If your kids are really young, or you’ve only just left the house, maybe they’ll believe you when you threaten to turn the car around and spend your vacation in the backyard. But after the first hundred miles or so, the kids will figure out that you’ve gone far enough that you won’t turn back. If your kids are older, they’ll know that you’ve probably already made reservations or bought tickets or whatever, and they’ll know you won’t want to throw away all that money just to make a point. Your threat will be empty, and your kids will know it.

After a few of these empty threats (they don’t have to be about Disney World—they could be any threat that you’re not willing to carry out), your kids will stop believing your real threats, too. Or at least, they’ll be confused about which threats are real and which are empty. Depending on how much fun they’re having with whatever it is you want them to stop, they may decide it’s worth the risk. Eventually, you’ll end up having to actually punish your kids for disobedience pretty much every time, because they’ll stop responding to verbal correction.

“Stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about!”

When I was a kid, I didn’t understand this at all. What was this mysterious ‘thing to cry about’ that I was being offered? Whatever is was, I really didn’t need it: I clearly already had something to cry about—hence, the crying. And if you want me to stop crying, why the heck would you want to give me something that will make me cry? Crazy, right?

As an adult, having had experience with kids and the sometimes silly (to me) stuff they cry about, I can understand the sentiment behind this threat. The parent 1) doesn’t understand why the kid is upset over this seemingly trivial thing, 2) wishes the kid would get over it and move on, and 3) hates, hates, hates hearing that obnoxious, whiny tone in the kid’s voice! But it’s still a stupid thing to say.

The kid is already miserable. She’s looking to you for comfort, and you’re going to make her even more miserable? She’s going to see this as a betrayal.

Of course, you don’t want to reinforce the whining/crying at minor setbacks, either. So focus on what you want. Not just “for the kid to stop making that annoying sound right now,” but what you really want: a kid who can face a setback and deal with it in a positive way. When you’re a grown up, dealing with other grown-ups, crying won’t help you. Nobody will respect you if you’re always bursting into tears every time something goes wrong, or you don’t get what you want. This is a little abstract for most kids, of course, so you have to explain it so she’ll understand. “I can see that you’re upset, but when you whine and cry, that doesn’t make people want to help you. Take some time to do your crying, and when you’re done, come see me. Tell me in a nice voice what you want me to do to help you, and I will.” And when she asks, do it. After a while, she’ll learn that crying gets her nowhere, while asking for help gets her what she wants. Once she’s learned that, she’ll probably spend less time crying and more time fixing her problems.

This is not to say that kids should never cry. Heck, I’m a grown man, and I wept at Rue’s (fictional!) death in The Hunger Games. It’s important to differentiate between crying over something that’s genuinely sad, and crying over minor setbacks. One should get sympathy and comfort. The other should get understanding, but no assistance at all until it’s over and the kid can ask—in a pleasant voice—for help.

What do you think about this?

What's your favorite silly thing people say to their kids?

See results without voting

We All Screw Up, But We Can All Fix It

Even the best parents lose their temper once in a while. Who hasn’t said or done something in a moment of frustration that they wish they could take back after they’ve calmed down? But we can fix our mistakes. Here’s the secret:

Say you’re sorry.

A lot of people think that parents should never apologize to their kids; that it undermines the parent’s authority or something like that. I completely disagree. When a parent (or any person) screws up, a couple things can happen. He can double-down on his error and look like a fool, or he can admit his mistake, apologize for it, and promise not to do it again—and in so doing, win greater respect.

Remember, when you apologize to your kid for losing your temper, you are not saying that whatever he did to make you mad was okay. What you’re saying is that you didn’t deal with his bad behavior in a good way, that you recognize this, and that you’ll figure out a better way to correct him when he screws up. You’re not letting him off the hook for being rude. You’re just letting your kid know that you don’t think it’s okay for you to be rude to him while correcting his rudeness.

Remember, too, that if you say you’re going to try to do better, you have to actually try to do better. The only hard-and-fast rule of parenting has two sides: never make a threat you aren’t prepared to back up; never make a promise you aren’t prepared to keep.

Some Supplemental Reading

Parenting With Love And Logic (Updated and Expanded Edition)
Parenting With Love And Logic (Updated and Expanded Edition)

A great resource for finding logical consequences for misbehavior.

 
Screamfree Parenting
Screamfree Parenting

Once you've lost your temper, you've lost control of the situation. Here are some tips on how not to do that.

 

More by this Author


Comments 28 comments

gmwilliams profile image

gmwilliams 4 years ago from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York

Jeff: This is an excellent article. The purpose of parenting is to guide and teach children as to how to be independent thinking, self-sufficient autonomous adults. Parenting is not a power game of dominance to subdue children into fear and blind obedience. However, many parents do not realize the important duty of parenting. They act as bullies to their children. This is immature parenting and what you are advocating is adult, mature parenting. Great read and voted up!


Jeff Berndt profile image

Jeff Berndt 4 years ago from Southeast Michigan Author

Hi, GM, thanks for the kind words.

Everyone wants their kids to obey them. The difference is why the kids obey. If the kids obey because they're afraid of what will happen if they don't, then when the parents aren't around, the kids will probably do whatever they think they can get away with. If the kids obey because the parents have explained why they should, and led by example, then the kids are a lot more likely to grow up to be responsible, thoughtful adults. It's a lot harder to raise thinking kids, but it's a lot more rewarding.

It's also really hard, ego-wise, to tell your kids you're sorry when you make a parenting mistake, but it's important to do it.


breathe2travel profile image

breathe2travel 4 years ago from Gulf Coast, USA

Voted up & interesting. I get frustrated at myself when I've found myself saying the very things I don't want to say! :P


Jeff Berndt profile image

Jeff Berndt 4 years ago from Southeast Michigan Author

Hi, Breathe,

Yeah, me, too. The important thing is to own your mistake, make amends, and strive to do better. A mistake is just a mistake. We have to watch ourselves to that a mistake doesn't become a habit.

Cheers!


msviolets profile image

msviolets 4 years ago

Good points, here. Although one of my favorite quotes is missing. "What were you thinking?" I've heard it so many times and always answer (to myself) that the kid was learning something us parents already know. That sand dropped from a slide will hurt, that watering the garden in your best clothes will ruin them, etc. Kids are smart; and usually they were just being creative!


smzclark profile image

smzclark 4 years ago from cheshire

My favourite one is, 'I'm not going to tell you again!'

'Now what's that? I can keep doing this all I want and never be told off for it ever again?...yay!'

Thank for a good read :-)!


Karanda profile image

Karanda 4 years ago from Australia

Oh, too true, all of it. There is such a fine line in raising children and so many ridiculous things come out of our mouths in the heat of the moment. Trouble is those children grow to be adults and before you know it they are mouthing those phrases back at their own children.


livinlifeminbymin profile image

livinlifeminbymin 4 years ago from Idaho

Knock it off! ... umm... knock what off? What can I knock off for you and where is it? I say some worse things to my son.. It IS hard to remember he is just a little boy and this is his first go around. Poor guy. I do attempt to re word what I want to say.. I come down to his level and I explain.. A LOT.. He seems to be getting better. :)


Jeff Berndt profile image

Jeff Berndt 4 years ago from Southeast Michigan Author

Hi, everyone, and thanks for commenting.

Great lines, all!

"What were you thinking?" Don't ask that, unless you really want to know. (Or be prepared for your kid to say "I don't know." (By the way, "I don't know" is code for "I'm afraid to tell you, 'cos you'll freak out.")

"I'm not going to tell you again!" "Oh, good, 'cos I was getting pretty sick of your nagging!"

"Knock it off!" That's a dangerous thing to tell a kid, especially if there's anything handy that can be knocked off of something else. Kids can be very literal-minded.


Rob Osterman 4 years ago

You know, I recall seeing a father do the "If you don't stop crying about that toy you can't have we're going back to the hotel room" while in Epcot Center. Little girl didn't stop crying, didn't even slow down. Dad took out wallet, handed it to his wife, kissed her, patted his two boys on the head with a 'behave for your mother' and proceeded to carry his little girl off.

I've no idea if they made it back to the hotel room, but I've no doubt at all that it is quite possible they did. Parent's not just hard; it can be expensive.


Jeff Berndt profile image

Jeff Berndt 4 years ago from Southeast Michigan Author

Good for him: he made the threat, he carried it out.

I hope mom and sons had a good time without the howling.

This is the same principle my wife and I use when one of our kids has a meltdown in public. We tell them, "Calm down, or we're outta here." And if they don't calm down, out we go. We haven't had to carry either kid out in a very long time, and we've never subjected our fellow diners, store patrons, moviegoers, etc to our kids' screaming.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 4 years ago from Alberta and Florida

Great read, Jeff. All the stupid things my parents told me is only topped by all the stupid things I told my own children -- so be careful who you laugh at.


Jeff Berndt profile image

Jeff Berndt 4 years ago from Southeast Michigan Author

Hi, Lynda,

Yes, we all make mistakes, and I've made a few too--I'm far from perfect. The real test? Check with my kids in about ten, fifteen years and see how they turn out, and how I'm remembered.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting!


LauraGT profile image

LauraGT 4 years ago from MA

It's amazing how often I hear myself say things I wish I hadn't. The worst is when I then try to unpack what I said out loud. Too bad there isn't a rewind button. It's really hard to avoid them empty threats, though I've gotten much more careful about what I say and really try to follow through on something. Of course, parents can make mistakes too and it's good modeling to admit when you do!


Jeff Berndt profile image

Jeff Berndt 4 years ago from Southeast Michigan Author

Hi, Laura,

Yes, admitting to mistakes is important, and not just because it shows the kids that you know something went wrong and want to fix it. It also shows the kids /how/ to act when they make their own mistakes: how to say, "That was a mistake; I should have done/said something different, and I'm sorry what I did/said inconvenienced you/hurt your feelings/made you look silly/made you late, etc."

This lesson will serve them well later in life, because (as mentioned above) /everyone/ makes mistakes from time to time.

Thanks for commenting!


Zoeys Mommy profile image

Zoeys Mommy 4 years ago

Wow,Jeff thank you for this article. I think of myself as a fairly logical, reasonable parent who keeps a cool head most of the time, but I hear some of those things come out of my mouth at times. It is interesting, because I think I say them out of reflex, hearing them from adults when I was younger, and yet I don't fully understand their meanings either. Thanks for helping me to be more aware of my word choices and how that comes across to them.


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Excellent article although my sons are grown now and have families of their own.. Everything you mentioned in the Hub was on point, but I especially liked what you said in one of the comments..."Good for him. He made the threat. He carried it out."

My Polish immigrant father was very consistent with follow-through with me (not so much with my younger siblings) he calmly stated consequences and then they happened. When my three sons came along that was an important part of how I raised them.

No wild threats, no repeated and ineffectual pleas, just clearly explained and reasonable expectations and consequences and then consistent follow-through. It helped enormously.

Great Hub. :)


Rodric29 profile image

Rodric29 4 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

I have seven kids, and I have used all of these bad parenting skills at one time or another. My oldest is 14 and I notice how sarcastic he is and it angered me. I confronted him about it and my wife interjected and said he acts like me! My mother confirmed it. Since that day I have stopped cold and become very blunt. Now guess who is blunt?

I love parenting. I love my kids. This is a great hub. Voted up.


Jeff Berndt profile image

Jeff Berndt 4 years ago from Southeast Michigan Author

Hi folks, thanks for commenting!

Zoeys Mommy, you are not alone. I've said and done some silly things as well, no question. The trick is to realize that you've made a mistake, and fix it. I hope that I'm constantly improving. Check with my kids in about ten, fifteen years. :)

Phdast, yes, it's all about clarity: clear statements of expectations, with clear and sensible consequences for misbehavior. And also remembering that the kids are kids, and might not catch the verbal shorthand that an adult would.

Rodric, you reminded me of a fun story: when my oldest son was about three, he went through the "Whys." He'd ask "Why?" whenever I told him something, just to see what I would say. After a bit, when it was clear that he didn't really want to know why, he just wanted to make me answer a question, I would say, "Because of all the elephants," which confused him, but stopped the endless stream of "Why."

So I'm talking about this with another parent, and she told me her technique: turn the question back to the kid, and say, "Well, Son, why do /you/ think?" I liked this idea better than the elephant thing, so the next time my son asked a frivolous "Why," I asked him, "Well, Son, why do /you/ think?" His answer?

"Ummmm....because of all the elephants?"

Kids are always learning from us, whether we're trying to teach them or not.


kittythedreamer profile image

kittythedreamer 4 years ago from the Ether

Hilarious, Jeff...and so true. I also particularly can't stand the phrase, "Do as I say and not as I do." As parents, we lead by example...not by empty words and threats. My mom always said that phrase...and she failed in the department of good role model. Anywho, awesome hub!


Jeff Berndt profile image

Jeff Berndt 4 years ago from Southeast Michigan Author

Hi, Kitty, thanks for stopping by!

Yes, "Do as I say, not as I do" gets right up my nose as well.

It's dangerous shorthand. It basically says, "I know I'm being hypocritical and I don't care. I make the rules and you follow them because I have power and you don't. Suck it up, kid."

The kids aren't going to consciously reach this conclusion, but they'll resent the heck out of the perceived double-standard.

I say "perceived" because there are times when different rules for kids and grownups aren't double-standards at all. For example, "No, you can't stay up and watch this scary movie with me. You know you have a hard time getting up for school, and the movie will probably give you nightmares. I don't have trouble getting up in the mornings, and I won't get nightmares, so I've decided that I'll watch it. Now what would you like me to read to you before bed?"

There will be times when you won't want to justify your decision to your kid, and that's okay, too. But rather than assert your right to hypocrisy (and teach your kid that hypocrisy is fine if you have enough power), try saying something like, "I know it doesn't seem fair, but really, it is. You're just going to have to trust my judgment on this one for now." You're acknowledging your kid's feelings, and telling him that he's right to think double-standards aren't okay. But you're also telling him that for reasons he doesn't fully understand, this isn't a double-standard, and your decision is not negotiable. If your kid has learned to trust you, he will.


Tom Koecke profile image

Tom Koecke 3 years ago from Tacoma, Washington

Hi Jeff! I know some people I wish would read this hub, but I find that people who need to read things don't read things, which is why they need to read things!

When I was a young parent raising two daughters as a single dad, there were plenty of people who would criticize me for explaining what it was about their behavior that I didn't appreciate or that was inappropriate. It was suggested so often that I put my foot down or, worst of all, put them on restriction.

I had read earlier that it was important to let children know that they are not bad people; it's the behavior that needs modifying. I took that to heart with my kids.

They are adults now. They seek my advice, they share stories of life's joys and sorrows with me, and they are not afraid to approach me with a problem, even if it is a bit embarrassing to them.

I remember my oldest, when she was two or three, telling me if she could have any dad in the world, she would choose me. I remember my youngest calling me from a weekend at her mom's house asking if she could come home because she was sick and wanted to be sick at my house. These are my trophies!

I'm now working on a granddaughter who is seven. She has about 40 pounds of art supplies at my house, and is tremendously talented. She loves to read because she loved to be read to, and Papa Tom never turned down an opportunity to read to her.

I now have a new granddaughter (seven weeks old today). She'll be her own person, just as my other three are their own people. She will get presents that are educational and/or creative, just as the other three did.

And we will talk. Not kid talk. Talk.

Jeff, you are a wonderful writer, and an more wonderful person. What a great world this would be if people like you were the norm!


Jeff Berndt profile image

Jeff Berndt 3 years ago from Southeast Michigan Author

Hi, Tom,

Thanks for the kind words! It sounds like you've done a great job as a parent: your adult kids value and seek out your advice. I only hope my own kids do the same when they're grown. That's the real test.


Tom Koecke profile image

Tom Koecke 3 years ago from Tacoma, Washington

I suspect they will, Jeff. I wouldn't doubt that you already experience that from other people's grown children. I know my mom and dad's grown child would seek it out.


SoManyPaths profile image

SoManyPaths 3 years ago from West Coast USA

Ha! I picked the right one. Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about. It is a common one I heard. I hope we can all be more positive to our kids . They are supposed to be (we hope) better than us as an adult. Unless, you were a U.S. president, Bill Gates or to that nature.


Jeff Berndt profile image

Jeff Berndt 3 years ago from Southeast Michigan Author

Good morning, SoManyPaths,

Yeah, that's my favorite blunder, too. It's a stupid thing to say for so many reasons. I can understand the sentiment behind it--I hate hearing my kids cry for (what I think is) no good reason, and I really wish they'd stop. But trying to make them stop crying by giving them a(nother) good reason to cry on top of whatever they're already upset about? STUPID!

Thanks for commenting!


pop 3 years ago

i ask whats for dinner. my mom says liver and onions


Crystal Tatum profile image

Crystal Tatum 3 years ago from Georgia

I think one of the worst is "Children should be seen and not heard." If that was the case, perhaps God would have delayed our speaking abilities a bit longer. It's a really devaluing statement to make to a child. I get the point, but there's often a better way to make it. I guess sometimes anger and frustration play a part in these reactions. Interesting hub and voted up.

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