When it comes to positive reinforcement, even just a little slip of the tongue can undo all your hard work, writes Tori Hoff-mann

Long before your kids were born, you probably made a long list of things you would never do to them. But when you’re feeling tired and frustrated, it’s so easy to let the old-fashioned parenting clichés slip off your tongue. Truth is, idle threats and reverting to old-fashioned scare tactics get you nowhere. Instead, why not try to focus on bolstering your tot’s self-esteem and rewarding good?

Yes, it’s a bit more work, but it’ll leave both you and your child feeling happier. So, skip the tough talk.


Right from the start, never try to deny your child’s feelings. “Toddlers communicate their feelings through their behavior, like crying, and this is appropriate for a young child. In other words, telling your child not to ‘be a baby’ is an unacceptable, negative label,” says Anne Cawood, a healthcare practitioner, and social worker. She’s also the
author of the popular Boundaries series of books.

Anne goes on to explain that a child who’s essentially told not to feel anything will grow up with no idea of how to give her emotions a verbal label. Rather say, “Oh dear, I can see a very sad little person,” and then soothe and cuddle your child.

If your child carries on crying, draw a gentle boundary by saying, “That’s enough of the crying, let’s go and find a story to read.”

In this way, you’re showing your child that her feelings have been accepted and labeled, and that a solution or distraction has been found.


“Stop and smell the roses once in a while,” suggests Celeste Rushby, a parenting coach and occupational therapist.

“Try to manage your time so that ‘hurrying up’ is not necessary and so that you can give your toddler controlled choices. For example, tell him, ‘It’s cold, so you have to wear a jacket – do you want blue or brown?’ – and not ‘What do you want to wear today?’ Doing this also helps bring those epic getting-dressed battles to an end,” she says.

She also encourages planning your schedule in such a way that your toddler has time to do things for herself, such as getting dressed or eating breakfast in the mornings.
“They grow up way too fast. So, soak up every minute that you can,” Celeste reminds us.


This is an effective statement to use because at such a young age your child almost certainly does not know any better and is possibly showing, through her behavior, just how strong her thoughts and feelings are.

“What your child really needs is an effective response that she can use. As parents, you need to understand your child’s stage of development, and then form realistic expectations of what she’s capable of and when,” explains Anne. For example, rather say, “I can see that you’re very upset. We should rather try to use our words and not push people over.” By doing so, not only will you teach your child how to respond appropriately, you’ll also help her to develop vital life skills.


Comparisons like this only serve to make sibling fights worse.

A child being compared like this will develop an enormous resentment toward her sibling.
“When this happens, the child will possibly set out to be as different from her brother as she possibly can be,” Anne says. “It also puts pressure on the seemingly ‘perfect’ sibling to keep up those expectations. Sadly, what emerges is the typical pattern of the ‘good’ and the ‘difficult’ or ‘bad’ child. Living up to these prescribed roles only ends in unfortunately self-fulfilling prophecies.”


There’s no way this nasty threat helps a stressful situation, says Celeste. We often say this after making a series of empty threats.

“So, take a deep breath, think clearly, and look at what’s been really happening with your tot,” Celeste advises. “Why is your child crying? Is it something that needs to stop – a tantrum for something she wants? Or is it something that needs to be comforted – did she get hurt or is she feeling overwhelmed?

“Idle threats are pointless.”


Don’t hand your authority over to someone else, even your partner. “You’re a parent too, so stand your ground, and set the boundaries. Your children will never feel safe and secure if they can walk all over you until their other primary caregiver comes home,” says Celeste. “It’s so important for primary caregivers to have discussions, right from the very beginning, about the true meaning of effective discipline,” agrees Anne. “Essentially, this means that each one will set appropriate boundaries and will then see to it that the consequences for pushing limits or breaking the rules are carried out – by the parent and within the time it happened. Children should not be made to feel anxious and fearful of the other caregiver, who was not even present when the unacceptable behavior occurred.”


Labels never work, not on anyone. Your child needs to know that she is loved unconditionally – no matter what she does.

“Don’t attack her character but deal with her behavior directly.

She needs to know that no matter what she does, she is loved, but that the specific behavior she displayed will not be tolerated,” Celeste says. “Calling a child ‘mean’ or ‘clumsy’ is likely to make her believe that that is who she is, and she’s, therefore, more likely to behave that way a lot more in the future.”


We all get irritable, sad, or angry and need some time out for ourselves. “Take that time out,” says Celeste. “But don’t make your children feel the brunt of it.” She explains that it’s actually quite healthy for children to know that their parents have feelings too, and to see that they also have to work hard at controlling them. “With a child over two and a half, explain what it is that you’re feeling – sad, angry, frustrated– and that you need some space. From this age she will be able to chill for a bit, playing by herself in a specified place and not coming out to find you until you call her. This might be what you need to gain composure.”


It’s so hard for parents to avoid the dangers of lavish, evaluative praise because they feel so enthusiastic and pleased when their children achieve their milestones or behave in ways that make them feel like successful parents.

The problem with such praise is that children learn to rely on the external evaluation and opinions of others, and so they do not learn to self praise, Anne explains.

“This is normal, but you need to try to develop the habit of using descriptive praise that concentrates on the effort and not just the final product, and describes what you see,” she suggests.

So, saying, “It’s wonderful when you put all the toys away so nicely,” or “You have used so many colors and filled the whole page – it’s beautiful” is more effective than just saying, “You’re so good at coloring.”

By being specific and not just telling your child she’s “a good girl”, she’ll also know exactly what it is that she did and be more likely to repeat this good behavior in the future, Celeste points out.

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