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A mom said to me the other day, “Of course I say what I mean. I’m a parent, not a politician.” We chuckled. But she was serious. As parents, we don’t try to be sneaky with our language or get our kids to buy into an empty promise . . .or do we?

When my kids were babies, I didn’t take “say what you mean and mean what you say” very seriously; it seemed so painfully obvious. “Of course we are going to grandma’s, that’s the plan.” As they got older, I realized that, cliché as they are, these eight words effectively harness the power of communication when we clearly communicate what we expect and follow through on everything we say.

It is so easy to fall into the trap of wanting to avoid conflict and keep things easy with our kids. The vaguer we are, the less likely we’ll create conflict in the moment. Then there were the times when I was simply too distracted to focus, “thrown off” by my child’s push back, or unsure myself about what I wanted, making it less than self-evident to communicate clearly. “Say what you mean and mean what you say” suddenly seemed a lot more complicated. Sigh.

Make a Moment

When we don’t say what we mean, our messages are ambiguous, inconsistent, or vague, which creates confusion and uncertainty.

  • “So, um, I was thinking it was maybe time for a break from the iPad. It’s sometimes good to take breaks. Would you be, um, be willing to give it to me for a little while?” (nervous, vague)

  • “Why are you out of bed again? You know it’s bedtime. What’s going on?” (ambiguous, inconsistent: child is supposed to be in bed, but Dad is engaging when he gets out of bed)

  • “Why are you on your phone again? Don’t you know you have homework to do?” (vague: no clear direction or instruction)

  • “No, I can’t cuddle any longer. I have to make dinner.” (vague)

Children are more likely to understand—and abide by—what we say when we express ourselves clearly and candidly.

  • "It's time to take a break from the iPad, so I need you to give it to me. I’ll give you two minutes to finish up." (after two minutes, you take the iPad with no discussion)

  • “It’s bedtime, and you need to be in bed right now.” (walk them back to bed). “Take some deep relaxing breaths. Good night.”

  • “I think you’re hiding the tablet because you’re afraid you’ll get in trouble. Why don’t you take a few minutes and then come downstairs and we can brainstorm some ways for you to tell me what’s really going on without being scared of my reaction.

  • “I’ve loved cuddling with you. Now I'm going to make dinner. Do you want to come help me or maybe you’d like to play with your Legos?” (extract yourself and go into the kitchen)

Why it Works

Creating clear and consistent communication generally leads to fewer misunderstandings and less confusion. Once children understand what is expected of them, they are more likely to comply and behave appropriately (read: cooperate and behave the way you were hoping). Beware - choosing the right words and following through on them ultimately requires both clarity and courage. I found I needed support with both–even getting the words out of my mouth was hard!

But, with repeated moments like this, children grasp that we mean what we say and say what we mean, and the push-back will slow down. Plus, they’ll begin to understand that their words and actions have consequences, and they’ll develop a stronger sense of their own accountability.

Finally, let me connect the dots. Holding the boundary sends the message that you are reliable, trustworthy and dependable. Now they’ll feel safe and secure which, as you’ll recall from Chapter 1, is essential for your connection and healthy development. Two birds with one stone!

It’s never too soon to start: this understanding of cause and effect not only empowers children but helps them make more responsible choices as they move into those tween and teen years–and beyond.

Your MicroStep

Direct with respect. Clear boundaries are helpful, not harmful, and they give you an opportunity to hone your child’s sense of agency.

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