While at the park with my family last year, I overheard a boy pestering his mom repeatedly about something. I can’t remember what it was that he wanted, but I remember well what that badgering feels like when you’re on the receiving end of it. It’s enough to send even the most patient parent over the edge.
But not this amazing mom.
Just at the point when I would have completely lost my cool with my own kids, she turned, looked her son directly in the eyes and said, in a kind, calm tone: “Noted.” And, like magic, he stopped. I was amazed, and decided then and there to stash that tactic for future use with my son and my daughter.
Surely, there must be a bunch of other similarly magical go-to phrases to memorize. I asked Toronto parenting coach Terry Carson for her expertise. Carson began by cautioning me that looking for a quick fix isn’t always the best solution. “The word or phrase is not as important as the lesson that came before, and how firm the parent was when teaching it. It’s about being clear about boundaries.”
She says that the mom and son I saw in the park likely had many conversations at home about interrupting, or about asking questions repeatedly, and “noted” was a code word that meant: “I hear you. I acknowledge you. Your needs are valid. We can discuss this later.”
“One-hundred per cent of these phrases begin with lessons at home,” says Carson. “And then, when we are out in public, we can use phrases to stay on track.”
In search of more one-liners (and the effective lessons behind them), I reached out to more experts and my fellow parents. They shared these invaluable gems we can all add to our parenting arsenal:
Psychotherapist Jana Brankov borrowed this phrase from psychiatrist and author Dan Siegel. Brankov explains: “If you can, turn a ‘no’ into a ‘maybe later’ or a ‘yes, later.’” She finds this works well with her son. Instead of reacting with a firm “no” when he wants to do something, like play Lego, she will repeat his request (to make sure he knows that he’s been heard) and suggest when they’ll do it: “Yes, I hear you want to play Lego. Let’s do that in 15 minutes.” This clear, simple message also makes her son feel validated, which is an essential element in communicating with anyone, says Brankov.
Tara Wilson, a Burlington, Ont., mom behind the blog “Don’t Lick the Deck,” asks her three daughters this question when they insist they’ve cleaned their rooms and she knows that isn’t the case. “There's usually an initial nod that quickly turns into a guilty retreat back up the stairs,” says Wilson. This tactic avoids the frustration of marching to their still-messy rooms and the ensuing argument over what is “clean enough.” Her girls know what is expected and Wilson’s question is a quick reminder for them to finish the job—without her blood pressure skyrocketing.
Similar to “noted,” one mom I spoke with uses this response with her eight-year-old daughter when “she’s begging for a different answer to a question I’ve already answered and will not be changing my mind on.” The trick here is to not change our minds. “This is an issue of trust,” says Carson. “The parent has to follow through. There has to be that relationship for the catchphrase to work.”
That same mom uses this one if her daughter is being more energetic than what is appropriate in a given situation. It’s a good way to remind our kids to settle down without embarrassing them in front of other people—but that’s only if we’re not yelling or saying it in a threatening way. Carson says that with these catchphrases, “less is more, without making a big stink.”
Carson suggests this one when parents need a minute to think. These seven words convey to our insistent children that we’ve heard their request or question, but it’s complex and a response will require some time. It sends the message to our kids that we’ll get back to them, “even if it’s just a five-minute delay,” says Carson.
This was Carson’s response to her kids when they used language she didn’t like, such as “I want.” She found that too demanding, and taught them to say “I would like” or “May I please have” instead. When they forgot, she would simply say: “Rewind.” (Sometimes she’d include silly actions like she was playing the scene backward.) This light-hearted approach meant: “Let’s back up and try that again,” rather than nag them with, “How many times have I told you?” She says this can work for whining, too. “It gives them a chance to get it right without scolding them,” says Carson.
Carson reminds parents to have catchphrases for the good times, too. By simply thanking kids for remembering to say “Excuse me” or “Please,” we further reinforce the lessons we’re trying to teach.
Kristen Swanson, a mindful parenting coach, says that this is a helpful phrase for older kids who are easily overcome with emotion. “The average initial emotional reaction is said to last only 90 seconds,” she explains. “So, to help put things in perspective, I would mention that and we would do the 4-7-8 breath cycle.” This is a calming exercise of breathing in for the count of four, holding it for a count of seven, and then releasing it in a controlled exhale, while counting to eight. “Any kid could benefit from knowing that his emotional states are impermanent and in constant flux,” says Swanson. “So he doesn't need to act on every feeling.” (A good reminder for parents, too.)
For those of us with highly emotional kids, these three words can help deflate many situations. Whether a child is insecure about the first day of school or going to the doctor, saying “I’ve got you” is letting them know you’re on their side, and you’re not going against them, says Vancouver-based parenting coach Julie Romanowski. She also says that this kind of validation and support will only strengthen our relationship with our kids in the long run.
Romanowski suggests this reaction after our kids hurt themselves—maybe they fell and skinned a knee. In their world, this is a devastating event, so we shouldn’t just brush it off with a “get up, you’re OK,” nor should we rush in and rescue them. Instead, we can get down on their level, acknowledge what happened with affection, and help guide them with: “I wish I could take away that pain, but I can’t. So let’s deal with this together.” As Romanowski says, our role as a parent is "to be supportive in their times of distress." We don’t have to have all the answers.
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