Parents Aren’t Perfect: What to Do When the Wrong Words Come Out of Your Mouth

ParentI’m pretty sure that parents would all agree that name-calling is a no-no. Why? Because it’s disrespectful, judgmental, hurtful and downright not nice. Right? Right. OK that was easy.

But let’s turn the tables and take a more nuanced look at name-calling.

This summer, I told my daughter she was being close-minded.

Rightfully so, my daughter protested: “How is that constructive, or even nice?”

Well, it wasn’t.

The details don’t matter. I was busted. I was being a name-caller.

Now, I am not a name-caller. At least, I didn’t think I was, but, like anyone else, I get upset when thwarted or ignored.

What if, just what if, I’d said to my daughter: “I’d really like it if we both listen to what the other is saying. Can we do that?”

Sometimes pointing out a problem (such as negativity or stubbornness) invites a child to do more of what they were already doing that we didn’t like. If we put out the welcome mat for what we’d actually like to see, it might actually happen.

Doing a Mindshift

The reason parents get wedged into their own name-calling corners is that we don’t let ourselves share the frustration, a little at a time, that naturally and predictably builds when we feel ignored or tested. Instead, we wait, and wait, and wait patiently as our children do everything but what we want, and then like any good combustion engine, we blow.

So the mindset shift that parents need to adopt is that it’s OK to not be endlessly patient. Instead, it’s actually helpful to say what you want. This is sounding slightly familiar to what we might tell a 4 year old who is throwing a tantrum. Just saying what you want doesn’t guarantee that you will get it, but it won’t make things worse, and it may help you feel better.

The same applies here. Practicing opposites won’t guarantee that your child will be more flexible, open-minded, or organized, but, it gives those desired behaviors the airtime they deserve. How would they really even know how to get better at those preferred behaviors if they are never mentioned?

Let’s practice a few examples of opposites.

If you’re tempted to say, “you’re so stubborn,” ask your child if she could give you some of her flexibility instead.

Bratty? Ask if you can see some of his best behavior.

Sassy? See if she can bring her respect to the situation.

Negative? Request looking together constructively at the possibilities rather than the failures.

Basically take the not-so-nice name you are thinking in your head and ask yourself — what is the opposite? Then ask for that.

Your kids will learn how to do this, too.

There will likely still be moments when we fall flat on our faces and let a name slip out. The best thing to do is admit it. Model for your child that these are fixable moments. In fact, to show that this is a family project, you could institute a fine jar for name calling, but instead of highlighting the problem by charging a quarter for bad name calling, give credit instead for framing your feedback in a more positive way.

Every time a member of the family catches themselves before (or quickly after) saying a name, and flips it around to a more positive request, they get to put a coin in a jar. When you have a bunch of coins, decide as a family on a fun celebration for being good to each other.

It may feel awkward at first, and your teen may accuse you of being too therapisty, or touchy-feely, but don’t be surprised if it catches on. Your son or daughter might actually come to call you on the carpet for your occasional bossiness or close-mindedness, but if they can do that respectfully by flipping it around, it’s a job well done for all.

©2015 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. Previously published on

If you like this, please share! For more ideas like this, please check out my books: Freeing Your Child from Anxiety and Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking

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