Stop Saying These 4 Phrases to Your Kids, Says Neuroscientist—Here's How the Most Successful Parents Teach Self-Discipline

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Parents often have conversations with their kids that start off well — but then, somewhere, somehow, things take a wrong turn.

A kid who was amenable to discussion, or at least not hostile, completely shuts down. A small disagreement turns into an big fight. What happened?

As parenting experts and authors of "The Self-Driven Child," we have a combined 65 years of research and experience working with kids (and have even raised a few of our own). We've found that the following phrases — uttered by well-meaning parents — don't work in teaching self-discipline, and we have a good sense of why:

1. "If you don't work hard now, you'll regret it for the rest of your life."

Instilling fear is one of the least effective ways to spark intrinsic motivation in kids. In fact, it can be detrimental for kids who, each time they're reminded of how important it is that they do better, become more stressed — and sometimes, avoidant.

Another reason phrases like this don't work is that the context is beyond kids' understanding. Trying to get a seventh grader to stick with swimming because it will look good on college applications, for example, is much like saying, "Now that you're in high school, we need to talk about a 401(k) plan for you."

Kids aren't capable of thinking ahead the way adults are. That's what makes them kids.

What successful parents do/say instead:

  • Encourage them: "You haven't mastered [doing X] yet, but you can get better at it. Look how far you've come already!"
  • Help them see the positives: "Yes, [doing X] is hard. But if you keep practicing, you'll have more confidence that you can face future challenges like this, and you'll feel really good."
  • Don't make it all about school: "I know [X class] has been difficult, but I love that you're working hard at baseball — and I'm confident you'll be able to work just as hard in class if you put in the same amount of effort."

2. "It's my job to keep you safe."

As kids get older and reach middle school or high school, keeping them safe is a job that we cannot by any measure do successfully. We're not with them all the time and we can't track their every move.

When kids think it's the parents' our job to keep them safe, and not theirs, they're more apt to behave recklessly, thinking there is always a safety net when really, there is not.

This doesn't mean you should silence opinions; there are times you need to say no and be clear about the risks you feel uneasy about them taking.

What successful parents do/say instead:

  • Calmly explain your concerns: "I don't feel comfortable with this, and here's why..."
  • Allow them to make mistakes. Carefully letting your kids learn a hard lesson on their own, and then talking to them about it after the fact will give them great insight.
  • Talk through perceived dangers together: "I have some concerns about [X], but I also imagine you have a different idea in your head. Can you tell me how you'll handle things if [X] goes bad, so that we both feel comfortable?"

3. "I'm punishing you because you have to learn that this behavior is unacceptable."

Enforcing punishment might help you feel like you have a sense of control, but research shows that not only does it hurt your relationship with your kid, it's also an ineffective tool for changing behavior.

Although it may briefly stop a meltdown, it doesn't inspire positive behavior or teach kids what to do. Plus, the more parents threaten, the more kids lie and hide problems that they may need help with.

What successful parents do/say instead:

  • If they don't want to hear your opinion, don't force it on them. The goal is to teach, which only happens when they're actually listening. If you communicate respectfully, they'll be more likely to come to you at another time: "I felt pretty upset about what just went down and I suspect you may, too. Can we talk later about how to get a better outcome if this happens again?"
  • Talk with them, not at them: "I need you to know that I'm not okay with what you did, but I really want to understand where you are coming from."
  • Discuss the consequences in advance, and make sure you both agree with them. Be specific, strategic and reasonable. (We've also always wondered why some parents think "You're grounded forever!" is an appropriate reaction to everything their kids do wrong.)

4. "You spend too much time on your phone."

The problem with this statement is that it's not respectful of the way a kid inhabits their social world — a world that looks much different than ours did.

Social media and gaming are versions of the note-passing and arcade visits that were so instrumental in our youth, and we wouldn't have taken well to someone suggesting that we just cut that part of our lives out.

Plus, we want to help kids manage their relationship with technology, because we have a pretty strong sense that it isn't going anywhere.

What successful parents do/say instead:

  • Increase your influence by showing interest in what interests them. Ask about the games they play, people they follow, shows they watch, books they read — and partake with them, at least some of the time. Power struggles have no winners long-term. 
  • Give them a reason to get off their phones: "I noticed that you haven't been spending any time with us since you got home from school. Do you want to go to the library and pick out some new books?"
  • Mentor more than you monitor: "How much more time do you need to finish up what you're doing?  I don't want to cut you off [doing X thing], but I also want you to be on your phone in a way that seems balanced."

William Stixrud and Ned Johnson are the co-authors of "What Do You Say? How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home." William is a clinical neuroscientist and a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine. Ned is the founder of PrepMatters and author of "Conquering the SAT: How Parents Can Help Teens Overcome the Pressure and Succeed." William and Ned have 60 years of combined experience working with parents and children.

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