Vague phrases your kid doesn’t understand…and how to communicate instead
When I was a kid, I loved the show Bobby’s World. Do you remember it? Poor Bobby was always misunderstanding what the adults around him were saying because they used idiomatic expressions and abstract phrases that were beyond his comprehension. It was funny to me as a child, but as a parent now, I can see the problem this creates in communicating with our kids effectively.
Children are concrete thinkers. Especially in the case of small children, they see what is in front of them and have a hard time comprehending anything that isn’t directly observable in the here and now. Abstract thinking, or “the ability to think about objects, principles, and ideas that are not physically present” (source) develops over time in childhood, but the ability to understand and analyze complex emotional and moral ideas often doesn’t emerge until the teen years!
What does this mean for communicating with our children?
When we talk to our kids, we need to be aware of what language they may or may not understand. Think about words like “respect” and “kind”. You likely have a good idea of what those terms mean, but your young children probably don’t. Kids don’t innately understand these abstract ideas; until these terms are defined in concrete terms, kids will be confused if a parent gives directions like, “Show some respect.”
If a parent says “show some respect” to a young child, the child may think, What am I supposed to be showing? He may look around for a “respect” like it’s a toy or a shoe that he can hold up for your approval. He must have it somewhere nearby if you told him to show it, but he has no idea what he’s looking for.
See the problem? These little concrete thinkers do not know how to respond to abstract directions. Now, think about some of the other vague phrases that often become a natural part of our parenting vocabulary:
- What got into you?
- Your attitude stinks.
- Mind your manners.
- Act your age.
- Calm down.
We’ve heard these phrases our whole lives, and over time, you figured out what they meant from context and experience. We’re familiar with them, and we know what we mean…but our kids don’t.
For a child who is still learning the basics of language, complex phrases and ideas like these just don’t make sense. That’s bad news for kids because they end up confused and frustrated. It’s problematic for parents because we often don’t get the response from our kids that we want—compliance. In situations where our language is unclear to them, it’s not because they are being rebellious; they simply don’t know what we are asking of them.
I’m as guilty as any parent of falling back on these vague phrases in my conversations with my kids, but I’m realizing that when I keep things concrete and simple, my children are better able to understand and meet my expectations for their behavior.
How can parents communicate more effectively?
Here are two ways parents can implement specific language with their children:
Keep in mind that it’s just as important to use specific language in describing positive behavior as it is in correcting negative behavior. Phrases like “good job” and “way to go” don’t give any specific details about what the child did right. When we are more specific, we teach them what behaviors to repeat in the future.
- Make it a point to observe and describe behaviors your child exhibits, rather than making vague generalizations.
- Teach desired behaviors by defining abstract terms—talk about what “respect” (or anything else) LOOKS like and SOUNDS like.
Here are some ideas for replacing some of the vague phrases we identified above.
How to use the skill of Observe and Describe in place of vague phrases
Instead of saying…
“Show some respect.”
Observe and describe: “You rolled your eyes at me and walked away from me when I was talking to you. That was not respectful.”
Teach desired behavior: “When someone is talking to you, it shows respect when you look at that person and listen without talking until they are done speaking.”
“What got into you?”
Observe and describe: “You just dumped all the blocks down the stairs. Now there is a big mess.”
Teach desired behavior: “When you’re playing with blocks, keep them on the rug upstairs. When they spill all over, someone could trip on them and get hurt.”
“Your attitude stinks.”
Observe and describe: “When I asked you to help set the table, you said it wasn’t fair, stomped off, and said that your sister should have to do it. That was not being helpful.”
Teach desired behavior: “We all have jobs to do. I made the dinner, your sister unloaded the dishwasher, and I need your help, too. When I ask you to do a job, I’d like you to do it right away and without complaining, we’re able to get on with fun activities sooner.”
“Mind your manners.” or “Be polite.”
Observe and describe: “You were talking with your mouth full. That’s not polite.”
Teach desired behavior: “It’s better to finish chewing your food and then speak up if you have something to say.”
“Act your age.”
Observe and describe: “You dropped to the floor kicking and screaming in the middle of the grocery store.”
Teach desired behavior: “I can see that you are upset. Having a tantrum in the store won’t solve the problem though. Remember to use your words and talk to me if you are mad about something. Together, we can solve the problem.”
Observe and describe: “You shared your treat with your brother without being asked. See how you made him smile?”
Teach desired behavior: “Sharing with your brother is a way to show him you love him. Thank you for being kind.”
It doesn’t take a lot of time to communicate more effectively with our kids. It just takes changing our mindset a bit, and remembering to speak in specific terms that our kids can understand. When we focus on observing and describing the behavior we see, and also specifically define the positive behaviors we want to see, we set our kids up for success. They will understand us better, will feel more confident, and will be more likely to comply with our requests.