I remember the first time I realized I’d taught my daughter something destructive. She was talking about a friend who was really needy. This person kept taking advantage of my daughter, who wouldn’t set boundaries. It frustrated me. “Why do you think it’s wrong to tell people no?” I asked her. However, the moment the words left my lips, I knew the answer—she learned it from me. I (and her mother) regularly talk about the need to love people. We taught her that sacrificing is part of what it means to be Christians, so in our family, sacrificing for others is expected. I had accidentally taught my daughter a lesson that might sound noble but is destructive when misunderstood.
Parenting is hard. The intricacies of forming a person are, at times, maddening in their complexity. How we use our language in shaping our people is one of those intricacies. Sometimes, with the words and phrases we use, we intend to motivate, to inspire, to pass along truth. And while many of the words we use are good, there are some that I believe are actually destructive messages we send our kids. It’s subtle, but we need to be cognizant of what we’re really saying when we say these 5 things.
1. You can be anything you want to be.
This sounds freeing, but in fact, it can become a source of anxiety for our kids. Malcolm Gladwell talks about the inverse relationship between the amount of choice we have and our level of happiness. It turns out having unlimited choices simply creates anxiety. Additionally, it’s not true! Your child is wired to be good at some things and bad at others.
Instead, try “You were designed to be a gift to the world. Part of the joy of life is discovering your unique contribution.”
2. I just want you to be happy.
This seems like a given. Of course we want our kids to be happy. But is happiness the end game? Is it really enough? This is one of the destructive messages we send our kids because there are many things that can impact our children’s happiness beyond our control and certainly beyond theirs. Not to mention some people find great joy in something that actually causes other people pain. Is that what you want for your child?
A far better hope for our children than being happy is being good. In our home, we believe that, as Jesus said, “No one is good but God alone.” So to be good is to live in the world reflecting God’s character as we each were intended. Therefore, we would much rather say, “I want your life to reflect the character and image of God.” What do you think would be a better message than “I just want you to be happy?”
3. Keep busy and you’ll stay out of trouble.
There’s some truth to this, practically speaking. There’s a reason why a saying like “idle hands are the devil’s playthings” came about. And yet, more than ever we have crafted lives for our kids in which they don’t know what to do with downtime. You and I were created to need rest. This is one of the destructive messages we send our kids because it creates a negative relationship with leisure and rest when both are necessary for human flourishing.
Instead, say, “Orient your life around things that matter. Choose to do work you’re proud of and that makes the world better.”
4. Ignore people who are mean to you.
Out of a desire to protect our children, we sometimes instruct them simply to avoid people who are unkind. This isn’t entirely wrong. We do want our kids to have good boundaries, and it’s certainly not in their best interest to be in relationships with people who are unkind. At the same time, we can develop in our children a sense that an unkind person is a lost cause, someone to exclude.
However, what if instead, we believed our children have the power to impact people with their kindness? What if we said, “Love your enemies. Do good to those who are unkind to you?”
5. You’re gifted.
I have a child who is labeled “gifted” by the school. She’s smart, she’s disciplined, she’s talented. I’m glad there are programs that help her utilize her gifts to the fullest. But the way we think of “gifted” in the public school system is incredibly narrow. Don’t all people have gifts to offer? Why is my child who is academically bright but lacks a lot of common sense more “gifted” than the child who navigates complicated situations well but struggles with higher-level math? The problem isn’t that we use the phrase but that we use it selectively.
Keep telling your child he or she is gifted. Just make sure you tell your other children—even the ones struggling in school—that they are gifted too. Their gifts are just different ones.
Sound off: Are there any other destructive messages we send our kids?
Huddle Up Question
Huddle up with your kids and ask, “What’s something I say to you all the time?”