3 Phrases We Must Stop Using to Describe Children (and what to ask instead)
*Originally posted February 20, 2019
In my work as a child psychologist, I am often a detective on behalf of the child. I gather information from the main players in their life: parents and teachers. These trusted adults are in the trenches when a child is struggling and they are my best reporters to describe what is working and what is not. Something, of course, is not working when seeking out my services, so my goal is to figure out what it is so we can make it better, together.
In my many conversations with parents, teachers, and other therapists, over the years, there are a few phrases that seem to be in our common dialogue that I would like to abolish. These phrases are more of an indication of how uncomfortable we feel as adults and do little to help us get to the bottom of the issue at hand. These phrases also often inappropriately label a child and can often lower expectations leading to more negative outcomes. But most importantly, these phrases are not questions. They do not answer why the child is having a hard time. So, on behalf of the children, please stop using these phrases and here’s what to ask instead:
1. "He’s Just Lazy"
I hear this one the most when kids are not motivated to complete homework or chores. They tend to have low energy and begrudgingly complete difficult tasks. Perhaps they have figured out how to do the bare minimum to get by. But why? Things to be curious about: Are they avoiding these tasks because they are too hard? If so, we need to figure out why and teach a skill or increase structure such as steps to follow. Do they have low energy generally and need more sleep? Think of the pattern of the low energy and times of day or activities it’s related to. Perhaps they are completely out of energy after a taxing school day. Are they only motivated when we include a high-interest topic or activity? Some children are much more driven by their interests than mundane activities (actually, we all are, but this can be more obvious in children). For instance, are you more motivated to wake up early to clean your house or to catch a flight to see a great friend you haven’t seen in years?
Remember: He’s not “just lazy.” He’s not getting something he needs to be successful. Let’s get curious, figure it out, and offer support. Calling a child lazy will likely make him feel more negative and defeated. He may even get comfortable with the label and become even more, well, “lazy.”
2. "She’s So Manipulative"
Shockingly, to me at least, this one is said most often about young children. The reason this one always throws me for a loop is that young children don’t even have the cognitive capacity to be manipulative. The word “manipulative” has the connotation that something is strategically planned to be scheming, calculating, or cunning. The brains of young children have not even developed enough to think about all the multiple steps that go into being manipulative. I hear this word the most when young children are bright but this intelligence is coupled with a weakness. Children know when something feels hard for them and if they can figure out how to avoid it, they will.
Every time I hear the word “manipulative” I translate this in my mind to “excellent problem-solving skills.” Maybe they have learned that if they flop on the floor then they won’t have to do the task at hand. Perhaps they have figured out that if they curse at adults they will get a reaction that is actually entertaining to them. Sometimes, “manipulation” in children is actually them trying to play with us. If they are giggling and being silly when it’s time to get dressed, eat, or get into the car, they are struggling to learn the boundaries of play. They are not just trying to manipulate your morning so that you are late (although every parent of young children knows that we are often late!)
So we need to ask them, “What do you need?” Children likely need more support, or a new strategy, but their behavior often derails us into reacting instead of problem solving. During times of inappropriate silliness, we need to have a brief positive response to their play, but then set the limit that this is not playtime and we will play at a later time. This is a teaching opportunity. We must figure out what they need and teach.
3. "He Just Doesn’t Care"
When children feel like this, usually the opposite is true. All children want to succeed and of course they want to feel better. As Dr. Ross Greene says, they will “do well if they can.” When children act like they don’t care or say they don’t care, often the bar has been set too high. When something feels too hard, it is much easier to say you don’t care than to admit you don’t feel good enough, smart enough, or strong enough to reach that bar.
So, let’s get curious. What feels too hard? What does the child need? If a child says they don’t care, we can respond with, “What feels hard about this? Let’s work together to figure is out.” Like any other tough conversation, we all have to be calm when talking. No problem-solving can happen when your child is upset. So let the dust settle and then get curious together, as a team.
In each of these situations, children need something they are not getting. Children often haven’t yet learned to figure out what they need or how to ask for it. So, when you notice these phrases cross your mind about your child or your student, get curious. What is not working? What are they trying to avoid? What seems too hard? What do we need to do instead? How can I connect with them? Every answer to these questions will lead you to better supporting your child and helping them grow.
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