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The Parenting Magic Words

When children are uncooperative, many parents feel frustrated, and find themselves making the same mistakes that their parents made - the mistakes we have all wanted so much to avoid repeating. As a counselor, I have often wished for some magic words that I could easily teach my clients - words that would help them in any situation to be the loving parents they want to be - the best version of themselves. But I never could think of the right words!

Finally, one day during a counseling call with a mother whose daughter was refusing to get into her car seat, I heard myself say, "Ask her to let you know when she's ready." My client was skeptical; after all, none of the other approaches she had tried had worked. But in desperation she agreed to try this suggestion.

The next time we talked, she sounded like a new person. "It worked beautifully! She only needed a moment and then happily sat down." I then realized that these were the magic words I had been looking for. Since then, I have often made this suggestion, with the same results. A mother who was quite frustrated and worried because her son refused to have his teeth brushed, after she had tried every approach she could think of, reluctantly agreed to try my magic words. The next day, she couldn't believe what happened. She used the phrase, not expecting anything. At first her son didn't seem to have paid much attention. But 15 minutes later, he came to her with his toothbrush in his hand and a smile on his face!

I think the reason this phrase is so successful is that it meets the criteria of attachment parenting: it's respectful, patient, and trusting. It assumes that the child's need for autonomy is an important part of growing up, and not an attempt to cause problems for us. It exemplifies my belief that children behave as well as they are treated. Maybe these words aren't magical - maybe they're just respectful. But what is more magical than loving, trusting and respecting a child?

I've since analyzed this phrase, and realized something interesting: when we demand a behavior from a child, we are no longer talking about the same thing. We're talking about whatever behavior we want, and why it's important to us, but the child is talking about autonomy, and why that is important to them, although they can't put it in those words yet. It's hard to communicate with someone when we're talking about different things!

Adding "Let me know when you're ready" when making a request to a child can make a big difference because the child is being given a voice. These six words recognize a child's need for autonomy, while still communicating the parent's need for cooperation.

Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.