Skip to content

“Bad” Things You Should Go Ahead and Say to Your Children Anyway: A Rhetorician’s Guide to Language-Consciousness Training for Parents of Young Children

April 19, 2013

Several years ago, I listened as my mom told a new mother to whom we are very close that she should stop using the phrase “bad baby” (disclosure: the young mother in question is an excellent parent). This struck me as eminently sensible. The young mother took my mom’s advice to heart, and stopped right away. But this child was precocious and, sensing that the phrase had become forbidden, developed a puckish habit of saying “bad baby!” and running from the room giggling. It charmed me to no end.

I share this anecdote to raise a larger question: how should parents talk to young children? We as a society have only just begun to fully appreciate that children can hear and be affected by the words we choose. The Internet, the world’s leading clearinghouse for wisdom, product reviews, and pure human awfulness, has taken on this challenge with gusto. A colleague recently passed along an article titled “10 Things to Stop Saying to Your Kids (and What to Say Instead)” You can read it in full here. We’ll take a close look at it below, but you can find similar articles here, here and here. Some of these pieces offer good advice. The most heartbreaking are those that advise on how to talk to children about events like the Boston Marathon Bombing. But sometimes we go too far in managing language, and nasty patterns creep in—see below.

“10 Things to Stop Saying to Your Kids (and What to Say Instead)” was written by Shelley Phillips, whose Twitter describes her as “a Life, Relationship, and Parent Coach, Conscious Mama, Loving Wife, Life Artist, Love Explosion.” Mostly her article is good stuff, with tips about listening, praising effort rather than achievement, avoiding bribes and refraining from demanding that children show levels of self-awareness many adults lack (by, for example, asking them why they did something). The article is chockablock with psychobabble (of which I am not a fan), but it’s one particular piece of advice from Phillips that really got my “rhetorical juices” flowing, so to speak (sorry). Here’s the statement I mean. It starts with the phrase you’re supposed to avoid and then recommends alternatives (emphasis added):

“I promise…”

Broken promises hurt. Big time. And since life is clearly unpredictable, I’d recommend removing this phrase from your vocabulary entirely.

Choose instead to be super honest with your child. “I know you really want to have a play date with Sarah this weekend and we’ll do our best to make that happen. Please remember that sometimes unexpected things come up, so I can’t guarantee that it will happen this weekend.” Be sure you really are doing your best if you say you will too. Keeping your word builds trust and breaking it deteriorates your connection, so be careful what you say, and then live up to your word as much as humanly possible.

One more note on this, if you do break your word, acknowledge it and apologize to your child. Remember, you’re teaching your kids how to behave when they fail to live up to their word. Breaking our word is something we all do at one time or another. And even if it’s over something that seems trivial to you, it could matter a lot to your child. So do your best to be an example of honesty, and when you’re not, step up and take responsibility for your failure.

This is the kind of advice that keeps me up at night (I don’t deal meth, I’m not having an affair and I don’t really commit any crimes so I usually sleep great, but I digress). I know what you’re thinking: Doug, what possible reason could anyone have to be bothered by the notion of telling kids that parent’s aren’t omnipotent? Isn’t this healthy honesty? Shouldn’t we be honest with children? Probably. What we should not do, however, is approach parent-child communication through legalese. Do we really need to caution children that “sometimes unexpected things come up,” so no guarantees? Are we worried that we’ll get sued in kid court because “promises” are legally binding? If a parent can’t promise something to a child, can anyone promise anything to anyone ever? Have we as a society become so contingent, so concerned about not over-promising, that we must abandon all obligation-creating phrases, including “I promise”?

This is not a minor quibble. I think that Phillips’ advice reflects a trend Norman Fairclough calls “colonization,” in which discourse from one area of human life “colonizes” another with troubling implications (e.g. the spread of economic discourse into higher education, turning “students” into “customers” and “teachers” into “content delivery specialists”). Fairclough’s bugaboo has long been the spread of market discourses into areas of life in which they do not belong. Here, however, I believe we are seeing the spread of legalese into—of all things—parenting. This parenting advice smacks of legalese in its almost pathological need to account for all possible contingencies.

Phillips advises parents to make an excuse before the fact, a practice that I see as toxic. My philosophy is this: commit to the things you think you can do, and if you can’t do them, then you had better be prepared to explain yourself. Don’t set yourself up for failure at the outset. You should have a back-up plan, but there’s no need to say “yes, but something unexpected could happen.” Say, “barring some disaster…” if you really need to, but this contingency is implied in the human condition. We all understand that if, for example, someone gets ill, the world will have to adjust. Where children are concerned, why not simply say, “I promise that I’ll do everything I can to make X happen”? That way you won’t be breaking your promise if you fail, only if you were negligent in some way. Phillips’ argument is not totally incompatible with this view, but she explicitly argues that we should remove “promise” from our vocabulary.

A final thought: Phillips is right to say that broken promises hurt, but what seems worse is living in a world in which no one, not even your parents, can see fit to make promises for fear of having to break them. There is a moral courage in making a promise, in resolving that, yes, I must do this thing because I have promised that I would and my word matters. This, above all, is something we ought to be teaching our children.

If you want to know more:

  • See Norman Fairclough’s book Language and Power and his article “Critical Discourse Analysis and the Marketization of Public Discourse: The Universities” for lucid discussions of colonization as a discursive phenomenon. See also his article “Political Correctness’: The Politics of Culture and Language” as it relates to the next footnote.
  • Some will label Phillips’ advice “political correctness” and bemoan things like bumper bowling, participation awards and forms of pampering that make our children too “soft.” This is not the complaint that I am making. No, I am bemoaning the infiltration of corporate, legal language practices into a place where they have no business: communication between parents and children.
  • Just for the record, I’m on board with being a loving and caring parent. I don’t think there’s any reason to go back to the don’t-praise-children-to-their-face-because-they’ll-get-a-big-head parenting of old. My point here is to show how language consciousness can get out of hand by making people TOO aware of what they’re saying, too removed from the moment because they’re focused on getting phrasing exactly right and staying out of kid court (with its adorable child lawyers and pigtailed bailiffs).
  • This has limited relevance to my argument, but I want to offer some advice to my fellow millennials, some of whom have benefited from very enlightened, smart parenting practices designed to create happy, healthy people and then been called “pampered” by Rush Limbaugh types because of it. The next time you hear someone complaining about how soft our generation is, how we don’t know what hard work is and can’t succeed because we’re too lazy or have been too pampered by our parents, I recommend the following diatribe: “Do you remember those days when you could go to college, major in a subject that interested you, work hard for good grades, and then graduate confident that your college education would allow you to get a good job and support a family? Yeah, we don’t have that anymore, and it really sucks. I know so many bright, hard-working 20-somethings, members of the so-called ‘bumper bowling’ generation, who would gladly hand in their participation awards and un-live the bumper bowling parties their friends’ parents threw, if it meant that they get a job that would let them move out of their parents’ basement. Diatribe over.” (Hint: you should actually say this last line to end on a lighter note).
  • Speaking of moral courage: what if, one day, you saw a sign in a parking lot or locker room that said “We ARE responsible for theft and damage to personal articles.” Wouldn’t  you, like, freak the heck out?
4 Comments leave one →
  1. Matt permalink
    April 19, 2013 12:44 pm

    I can see this same argument playing out in the business world. There’s ongoing dialogue about setting appropriate expectations, under-promising and over-delivering, etc. and how it affects us as leaders and workers.

    • Matt Zebrowski permalink*
      April 19, 2013 1:25 pm

      Hi Matt!

      So, what you’re saying is…you treat your customers like children? 🙂

  2. April 19, 2013 6:23 pm

    “Say ‘barring some disaster…’, if you really need to, but this contingency is implied in the human condition. We all understand that if, for example, someone gets ill, the world will have to adjust.”

    I guess this is where I disagree about interpreting Phillips’ point. In my experience, young children do not necessarily know that contingency is implied in the human condition. That’s precisely why they need help understanding the difference between (a) missing a playdate because Mom & Dad double-booked their schedules that day vs. (b) missing a playdate because the other kid’s family decides to cancel it. In the first scenario Mom & Dad have more control over the situation; however, this is not the case in the second scenario, and it might actually be hard for a young child to understand the difference.

    I think we have a tendency to make a lot of “promises” to kids that we cannot realistically keep, so we should be very careful about the ones we do. There’s a difference between saying “I promise to take you to the next playdate” (which you can be responsible for) and “I promise there will be another playdate at Sarah’s another time” (which you cannot necessarily be responsible for).

    Perhaps the solution is not that we should eliminate of the word “promise,” but that we should use it only when making strong commitments about our own actions, which we can more or less control, and not about situations or the actions of others. As I saw Phillips’ point, the goal is to model for kids how to make and keep realistic commitments, which I don’t think has to be in conflict with moral courage.

    • Doug Cloud permalink*
      April 24, 2013 4:05 pm

      Good point, Carolyn. My reading of Phillips is perhaps a little harsh. I would dial it back except that she does explicitly say that we should eliminate “I promise” from our vocabulary. I think your position is very reasonable and smart. You’re right to say that people, including parents, overpromise and don’t seem to realize the consequences. We should definitely think about this. Phillips may have just chosen her wording poorly in saying that we should eliminate “promise” from our vocabulary. Please keep posting such provocative articles on Facebook!

Leave a Reply to Doug Cloud Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: