If You Can’t Say Something Nice…

If You Can't Say Something Nice

Years ago, when my daughter was an infant, someone gave her a onesie that read, “Spoiled Rotten.” Now, the truth is that she did get all the attention and affection any tiny human could ever want. She was our only child at the time, the only grandchild on my side of the family and only granddaughter on my husband’s side. She attended daycare at the church where my husband was pastoring and my best friend was Assistant Director, so she had more than a little bit of privilege there. Pretty much any way you looked at it, you could have called my daughter “spoiled.”

But I didn’t.

Over the years I have passed on many cute outfits for my kids because of the language printed on them: words like “spoiled” and “diva” for my daughter, and phrases like “little monster” and “lady killer” for my boys. It’s not that these monikers are inherently bad, and I pass no judgment on you if you deck your kids out in adorable graphic tees bearing such verbiage. But for me, I have found the way I talk about my kids directly correlates to how I talk to my kids.

Choose Better Adjectives

Peggy O’Mara, author of Natural Family Living, famously said, “The way we talk to our children will become their inner voice.” I read this quote at a time in my life and mothering when I found myself yelling…a lot. I was convicted about the manner and tone with which I spoke to my own kids, and I had to make a decision about handling my own stress that would be best for my family’s long-term emotional health. I didn’t realize the solution for me would be so simple as choosing better adjectives.

inner voice quote

One day while venting to my mom, I said something along the lines of, “These kids are crazy!” and her response changed my parenting from that day forward. “You really need to watch what you say about them,” she replied. I brushed it off with an “Aww, mom…” and defense that the big kids were napping and the baby couldn’t understand me. “No, that’s not what I mean,” she contended. “Calling your kids crazy will make you think they’re crazy. They’re not. Come up with some better adjectives.”

To be completely honest, I was defensive at first. Clearly my mom did not remember the trials and stresses of parenting three small children. Give me a break, right?! The more I thought about what she said, though, the more I realized she was right. Over the next few days, I tried to see my children for who they really were, not how inconvenient they were to me. I chose better adjectives.

My strong-willed and opinionated pre-schooler was not sassy or a diva; she is bold, convicted, and passionate about her beliefs.

My wild and dangerous toddler was not a monster; he is courageous, adventurous, living life to the absolute fullest.

My fit-throwing infant was not fussy or intent on driving me bonkers; he feels deeply and would eventually become an incessant talker, determined to communicate all those feelings he couldn’t express without words. (Let’s be real; sometimes infants cry and scream because they’re frustrated they can’t do or say what they want. My great uncle was the same way following a massive stroke that left him bed-bound and unable to speak – chew on that.)

It’s Not You, It’s Me

Changing my language about my children was superficial at first, but over time it changed the way I saw them. Rather than constantly being frustrated by their antics, I saw a long-term vision of the incredible adults they will one day become. Those adults won’t be exactly like me and certainly won’t make my life convenient or easy, but they are beautiful and worthy of my love. Choosing better adjectives doesn’t inherently make them better people, but it makes me a better mom because I see them for the amazing individuals they really are and not the easy, well-behaved minions I want them to be in this moment.

Seeing the gifts and talents behind my children’s frustrating behavior also helps me respond and correct them with love. When my tender-hearted adventurer does something dangerous, coming down on him about his recklessness will crush his spirit. Rather, I sit him down and express my love and concern for his safety, and we discuss alternative methods to experience the adventure he seeks in a more age-and-developmentally-appropriate manner. And, sometimes, I teach him how to do those things safely.

Yes, I coached him up there, about 6 feet over my head.

Yes, I coached him up there, about 6 feet over my head.

When I am intentional about uplifting my children to myself, it becomes easy to uplift them to others and to my children themselves. When my 7-year-old is down about a mean kid at school, it’s easy for me to encourage her and build her self-esteem with positive, encouraging adjectives. My words have more weight because she knows I believe them, and I can back them up with examples of what makes her so amazing. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t be very good at that had I not been practicing it to myself for years.

When I am in the habit of choosing better adjectives for my kids, I find myself having exponentially greater capacity to love them, even when it’s hard. I have more patience, give more grace, and feel greater pride in who they are. I think all of us moms can benefit from that.

How do your words affect your attitude? Can you tell a difference in your parenting when you are intentional about your words?

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18 Responses to If You Can’t Say Something Nice…

  1. Meghan Cobble May 26, 2015 at 2:12 pm #

    Mary Beth,


    “The way we talk to our children will become their inner voice.”



    Great post.

    Meghan 🙂

    • Mary Beth May 27, 2015 at 6:07 pm #

      Thank you, Meghan! That means a lot coming from someone as awesome as you!

  2. Elizabeth May 26, 2015 at 4:20 pm #

    Right after our son was born, we stopped using “Little Stinker” and use “Little Rascal” instead. My husband, my son, and I have sensitive hearts. We’re wanting to use good words for our son at all times, and teach him to speak that way when he can (he’s 8MO… a while before the words come out).

    • Mary Beth May 27, 2015 at 6:08 pm #

      That’s great you are starting early!

  3. Kate May 28, 2015 at 1:52 pm #


    Huge high-five from me too! It’s totally no big deal when they are 6 months, but if we don’t start changing the language – which is simply a mindfulness habit thing for us, like a teeny adjustment in our behavior now – it never improves.

    I say, be careful what you wish for.

    “Spoiled rotten” is cute at 6 months, but not at 26 when they need to move out of the house but have no skills besides being entitled.

    I wonder why those terms are, in fact, used as terms of endearment for so long and towards little beautiful humans that we truthfully love and want so much to be wonderful adults…

    Thanks for the reminder!

  4. Angie June 2, 2015 at 1:15 am #

    just want to say that this is an excellent article and that i have been doing my own personal research project on this for the last almost 18 years with my two amazing children. when my firstborn was called stubborn or bossy by others we reminded those who used those adjectives that one day this would be called grounded with a good foundation and also a great leader. and that she has proved to be. my son, likewise, found himself with is own set of monikers offered by others and my husband and i refused to be deterred in acknowledging his potential. instead cutesy nicknames we chose handsome and beautiful and precious instead and now we have (what?) teens that are NOT rebellious (yep!) and are tremendous assets to the world. In the blink of an eye they are grown and we knew they needed to be equipped to cope and thrive regardless of the world at large’s opinions of them. Well I am here to tell you that the advice is this article is SOUND and TRUE and IT WORKS. My children are amazing. And, by the way, so are all of yours out there. Take the time to see it. It will change their worlds AND YOURS. 🙂

    • Mary Beth June 9, 2015 at 11:41 pm #

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Angie!

  5. Brandon Creighton June 3, 2015 at 9:27 pm #

    What an amazing article! Great thoughts and insight! I wish so many people got this!

  6. Kim June 7, 2015 at 4:46 pm #

    Thank you so much for this article. I am not a parent, but I work with new and expectant moms who are low income and face many challenges. Their particular circumstances often leads them to take their stress out on their kids. I plan to take parts of this article and use it as a way to help encourage the use of positive parenting practices.

    • Mary Beth June 9, 2015 at 11:43 pm #

      Wow, thank you! That is very humbling you would want to share this with your clients. I hope it resonates with them also for the benefit of their parenting and their kids!

  7. S. B. June 9, 2015 at 11:09 pm #

    I wouldn’t normally comment on an article, but I am compelled by the profoundness of your thoughts. I feel so empowered and motivated by your words that ring true to the depths of my being, though I have forgotten their importance for the last few years. Tomorrow I begin again…refusing to see faults in my children and only brilliance waiting to be discovered! Thank you so much for sharing.

    • Mary Beth June 9, 2015 at 11:45 pm #

      Thank you! Good luck on your journey into choosing better adjectives. It really is one day, one situation, one choice at a time. Practice makes perfect!

  8. Danielle Andresen December 29, 2015 at 11:48 pm #

    I’m so glad this article found me at the right time in my life. It’s trying times with my two year old and sometimes I find myself challenged by his outgoing and independent ways. I’m making this my new year resolution. Thank you!

    • Mary Beth December 29, 2015 at 11:59 pm #

      Good luck in 2016, Danielle! You can do it!


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