Most parents have a list of phrases they heard and hated in childhood — and then vowed never to use on their own kids. Things that annoyed them, or frustrated them, or just felt like an arbitrary imposition of rules: Because I said so. Don’t make me turn this car around. If your friend jumped off a bridge, would you?

Of course, there will come a time when you find yourself exhausted, exasperated, and out of ideas — and, to your horror, you’re uttering the same things that once made your eyes roll.

Below, parenting experts explain five ways to get language on your side by giving some old cliches a new spin.

Old phrase: “How was your day?”

Of course you want to ask your kid about their day; you care. It’s possibly the most-asked question in the history of parenting — but maybe also the most likely to yield an unsatisfying answer.

Clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel, PhD, says it can be helpful for parents to remember that kids have already had a full day by the time they get home to report on it. “They have do a lot of code-switching to get through their day, and they’re exhausted,” she says. “They don’t want to do it all again for you.” Young people have to present so many different selves at school — chatting with their buddies on the basketball team, talking to a teacher about homework, ignoring taunts of bullies in the hallway — that it can be easy to feel overloaded by the end. Having to translate all of that again for a parent can just seem like one more task.

New phrase: “Today I thought of you when _______.”

It seems counterintuitive, but this can be more effective at opening up the lines of communication than directly asking your kid to recount their day. “[It shows] you hold them in mind when you’re not with them,” Mogel says, reminding them, subtly, that you’re invested in how they’re feeling. Instead of asking a question that seems interrogative, kicking things off yourself creates a less pressure-filled opportunity for them to share anything that might be on their minds.


Old phrase: “I’m not mad, just disappointed.”

Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of this knows how brutal it can feel, even when delivered calmly and quietly. And therein lies the appeal: It gets the point across as effectively, or even more so, than yelling. The fear of parental disappointment can be a powerful motivator.

But psychologist Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, says it can also overstep and send your kid an unintended message that they’re deeply flawed, rather than limiting the scope of the conflict to the infraction in question. Your role as a parent is to teach your kids how to make good choices, but that doesn’t have to involve shaming them into compliance.

New phrase: “This is tough for both of us, but we’ll work through it together.”

This phrase still acknowledges your emotions as a parent, but doesn’t blame your child for how you feel. Responding to a poor choice with empathy, Markham says, can help your children become receptive to feedback without feeling ashamed or defensive.

By telling them you’ll figure out the problem together, you’re creating an action plan and letting them know you’re a team. You’re focusing on moving toward a solution rather than dwelling in hurt or frustration, which is helpful for everyone involved.


Old phrase: “Finish your dinner before you leave the table.”

There’s no shortage of food-related issues for parents to be anxious about, from increasing childhood obesity to eating disorders that are appearing earlier than ever. And helping kids build healthy relationships with food is complicated by the fact that many parents have their own baggage around food, says Jill Castle, a childhood nutrition counselor and registered dietitian.

Castle points out that being too strict about your kid’s eating can be counterproductive: Making kids finish their food before leaving the table, or demanding they eat a certain number of bites, teaches them to follow external motivators rather than listen to their own bodies. And research has also shown that overt attempts to control children’s eating habits can make for picky eaters down the road.

New phrase: “Do you feel satisfied?”

A more subtle approach — one that gives control back to the child — will be more effective in helping them get in touch with their bodily cues. “If you don’t have a good sense of your hunger and fullness,” Castle says, “you’ll never really get that autonomous development of being in charge of your own body.”


Old phrase: “Money doesn’t grow on trees.”

Many of the old rules of personal finance are no longer as helpful as they used to be, and this is a phrase that falls into the same category. “It’s important to teach the value of the dollar that you earn,” says Melissa Leong, author of the book Happy Go Money, but encouraging a financial hoarding mindset is doing your kid a disservice down the road. “[It] doesn’t take into account the potential of your money, and the opportunities that your money can give you.”

It’s almost a childhood rite of passage to ask for unreasonable things: every Lego set in the store, a four-tier cake for dessert, a new iPhone with every updated model. When you respond to these requests with the reminder that money doesn’t grow on trees, you can miss out on the opportunity to talk about how money actually works: Saving now can create a safety net for the future, and investing this money can actually increase its value in the long run.

New phrase: “Plant seeds now, and get money trees later.”

“Money meaning comes from family,” Leong says. “Our relationship with money was probably born from watching our parents with money.” Whether or not they’re letting on, your children are watching and absorbing your financial choices.

The new phrase models a healthy relationship with money without injecting it with a sense of anxiety. “If you save money now, and put it to your vacation fund,” Leong says, “that’s a richer lesson to teach than, ‘No, you can’t have a doughnut; money doesn’t grow on trees.’”


Old phrase: “Good job.”

Of course it’s great to commend kids for a job well done. But developmental researcher Kent Hoffman, author of Raising a Secure Child, urges parents not to rely too heavily on this type of praise. Hoffman, who also co-created Circle of Security, a set of trainings designed to strengthen the parent-child bond, notes that an abundance of praise can create the impression that your love is contingent on success. Kids can become “addicted to praise,” he says, “because they want to stay away from the criticism.”

At the same time, parents also run the risk of overusing their compliments to the point that children become desensitized. When hitting a home run is acknowledged with the same language as getting into Harvard, something’s off.

New phrase: Silence

Sometimes, wordless communication of joy — a gesture like a beaming smile or an emotionally loaded hug — says more than words. According to Hoffman, children in particular thrive on these gestures. “Praise is not delight,” he says, “and children need delight to be healthy.” Using body language and facial expressions can convey a purer form of joy, pride, or excitement, and help your child associate those emotions more organically with you, rather than with the situation.

Hoffman still recommends that parents use authentic words of praise roughly half the time — but the other half, he says, let your gestures do the speaking.

“We think what’s needed is something we can do,” Hoffman concludes, “but actually, what’s needed is who we are.”