Inside: Try these 8 simple parenting phrases to handle almost every behavior problem in the little years. They are easy to use and actually work.
“You hit your brother. You need a time out. Go to your room.”
“I won’t go to my room!” your three-year-old screams, wrapping his arms around the chair with a vise-like grip, shooting you a defiant look.
You glance at the clock, and your shoulders slump: it’s only 10 a.m.
You long to parent intentionally, saying just the right thing at the right time. But you’re already exhausted from a morning where you’ve spent every last drop of your mental energy deciding how to handle 4-5 more encounters like this one (without spanking).
You’re so done – decision fatigue has won again. You threaten a spanking because it’s the only thing you can think of.
Sound familiar? I know exactly how you feel because I’ve been there.
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A Search for Alternatives to Spanking
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In my early parenting days, I only had one tool in my parenting toolbelt: spanking. And for years, it totally stole my joy in motherhood.
I hated being a mom.
When asked my opinion about being a mom to multiple little ones, I consistently responded with all the hardships. Tacked on at the end was, “But I love my kids.”
What I thought was just being real about the hardships of motherhood was actually deeply rooted unhappiness with the parenting style I thought I had to follow.
I spent much of my day yelling or spanking one child or the other. Shortly after my third child was born, I finally found the courage to stop, and I started seeking alternatives to spanking.
Once I stopped spanking, however, I was at a complete loss. How would I teach my kids correct behavior, and how on earth would I enforce it?
My relentless pursuit of spanking alternatives produced the eight phrases I’m about to share with you. The authors I read wrote like they had been to my house and knew what I was dealing with every day, and the tools they provided actually work (when I remember to use them, of course).
Why These Specific Phrases?
First, I want to explain the reasoning behind using memorized phrases. You might be afraid of sounding like a robot. Some parents try them and complain that they feel sarcastic or insincere. Perhaps they read that way on paper, but they can be said using a calm, kind but firm tone.
There are five good reasons for using memorized phrases as alternatives to spanking.
1. Decision Fatigue
I don’t know what it was like to parent back in the day, but I’m pretty sure that decision fatigue was not as big of a problem as it is for parents today. There were fewer choices in every part of life – even in parenting.
For the majority of parents, it used to be “my way or the highway”. Kids just did what they were told, usually out of pure fear.
I agree with older generations that many parents in our culture have swung too far on the pendulum towards child-centered parenting. Even though I don’t agree with their strict, fear-based approach, I do sometimes admire the apparent ease they experienced as parents.
There was only a handful of responses to pretty much anything kids could throw at them. Think, “Because I said so. Do you want a spanking? Go to the room! You’re grounded.”
Simple, memorized phrases help fill that void, giving parents a specific phrase to use in a handful of similar situations, but without spanking.
Instead of reinventing the wheel and coming up with a different way to address the same things again and again, you already know exactly how you are going to respond.
There’s nothing like the insecurity of being a new parent. This little life has been entrusted completely to you. You are largely responsible for what kind of person they turn out to be. The pressure to do it the “right way” can feel overwhelming, and overwhelmed people typically don’t make the best decisions.
These phrases are designed to give you a few more parenting wins. Those wins increase your confidence, so you trust yourself to handle more complicated situations later (because parenting only gets more complicated).
Simple phrases teach kids boundaries. Surprisingly, even a two-year-old can learn boundaries. Setting boundaries communicates what you will and will not tolerate as a parent, and it can be done lovingly, but firmly.
[If you are unfamiliar with the boundaries concept, I recommend the book Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend.]
The best part is, it can be done without any yelling, fear-oriented wording, or spanking. Once you have communicated your boundaries, and what you will do when they are violated, you offer your kids the freedom to choose what they are going to do in response.
One of the most widespread and dangerous parenting myths is that you can control your child, and that a parent’s job is to do just that.
Perhaps you can to some degree, while they are still very small. But the older your child gets, the less you can control them by sheer physical dominance. Eventually, they grow up and find ways to do what they want, unless you teach them 1) self-control and 2) how to respect other people’s boundaries.
I’m a strong feeler (an “F” in Myer’s Briggs Type Psychology), so if I don’t have a game plan for exactly how I’m going to handle the most common parenting situations, my response will vary based on my feelings. When one particular child yells at me, I get LIVID. The rage comes hurtling out of nowhere like a freight train.
If you don’t have a plan worked out in advance (and rehearsed) for exactly how you’re going to handle the situations you deal with most frequently, your approach will change based on your feelings.
This is absolutely not good parenting.
That’s why you need these phrases: let you put your brain on autopilot; they override all the emotions. Once you use them enough times, it’s like muscle memory. You do the plan, just like you rehearsed.
You can then focus your energy on calming down and communicating in a loving, gentle way.
Most experts agree that what young children need most is consistency. They need to know what you expect of them and how to meet those expectations.
Using the same simple phrases over and over gives kids the consistency they need. As soon as you say that phrase, they automatically know what they should do. Granted, depending on your child’s personality, they may not always respond the way you want them to. But there are simple phrases for that, too!
8 Simple Phrases I Use Every Day to Handle Behavior Problems in the Little Years
Update: We still use several of these phrases, and I’m so grateful for how they helped me transition from authoritarian parenting to respectful parenting. We abandoned those we didn’t feel aligned with our respectful parenting philosophy. What is respectful parenting? Learn more HERE.
1. “Uh-oh, this is so sad!”
I use this phrase mainly in the baby/toddler stage (you can read more about the terrible twos in this post), but occasionally into the preschool years, depending on the child’s temperament. It lets the child know that what they are doing is not o.k., and that some kind of natural consequence is coming.
Throwing food? “Uh-oh, this is so sad!” I guess you’re not hungry, and you can be all done now.
Tantrum? “Uh-oh, this is so sad!” You probably need some alone time to calm down. Do you want to calm down right now here, or in your room? (Phrase #2)
Hitting? “Uh-oh, this is so sad!” Time to take a break in your room and calm down.
2. “Do you want to calm down here or in your room?”
Updated 2020: We use this only when the child is dangerous to others around him/her – siblings, or parents.
We use this for extended tantrums (beyond short toddler outbursts). It works well for one of my kids who tends to scream and occasionally hits when he’s angry.
Even as adults, we benefit from removing ourselves from situations until we can calm down and talk about what happened.
When they continue to scream instead of making a choice, they are automatically choosing the break in his room, in case you were wondering.
I always want to give my kids the option to calm down on the spot. My kids understand that if they don’t calm down, they will have the time and space to do it in their room.
Once in their room (and you ensure they stay there – see Loving Your Kid’s on Purpose), I say, “Feel free to come out when you’re calm.
Why so wordy?
This is a wordier version of the original “fun or room” phrase from Loving Your Kid’s on Purpose by Danny Silk. I understand and love the reasoning behind having such a short phrase – short and sweet is easier for both you and your children to remember.
That being said, I don’t love “fun or room” because to me, it communicates that you always need to be in a good mood to be with around people.
I want my kids to be able to be sad or even mad with their family, but I do need them to learn not to throw tantrums and hit when they are sad and mad. Thus, the invention of a wordier phrase, but one that fits better with our values.
3. “Do you want to walk or be carried?”
After you say phrase #1, those kids that can talk will quite possibly respond, “No!” That’s when this phrase comes in.
You’ve probably recognized by now that a lot of these phrases are choices. Most originated from Love & Logic.
For Love & Logic newbies, you always give two choices, both of which you would be 100% happy with your child choosing. When they come up with choice C (not A or B), which every child inevitably does, you use phrase #4 or simply repeat the original choices given.
Our Reasons Behind Giving Choices
Now, Love & Logic argues that giving kids choices not only teaches them how to make decisions but makes them more agreeable when you truly need them to obey right away. Giving choices, Love & Logic argues, also causes them to take their mind off the issue at hand and forces them to decide what they would rather do.
Personally, we use them for a different reason. As followers of Jesus, we believe that God originally created people for freedom, and the purpose of the cross was to restore that freedom.
Our job as parents, then, is to train our kids to manage their freedom. They are absolutely free to say “no” and make a bad choice, but they need to understand the natural consequences of that “no” and the bad choice.
In this case, the boundary is, you need to calm down in your room, where it’s safe and you won’t hurt people. How you get to that room is up to you.
You are also free to choose to calm down right now and stop your tantrum. If you don’t, you will get to that room one way or another. You get to choose.
4. “You decide or I decide.”
When I had only one child, I decided to give Love & Logic techniques a whirl. Of course, I instantly ran into the problem of my child choosing choice C.
I hadn’t read enough to know not to go with choice C. My daughter realized she could get away with any alternate choice she invented. Needless to say, I ditched Love & Logic pretty quickly.
The second time I tried using Love & Logic techniques, I used them within the framework presented in Loving Your Kids of Purpose. I actually finished the whole book this time and found what I missed the first time around: “You decide or I decide.” It solved my dilemma of what to do when your child tries to choose option C.
You, the parent and the teacher, are the giver of the choices. You decide which choices to give.
If your children decide they don’t want either choice, they relinquish their right to decide back to you.
5. “You can come and have fun or come and not have fun.”
One of my favorites, this phrase is the one to use when there really is no other choice. It teaches kids that sometimes, you have to do things you don’t want to do. But the one choice you always have no matter what is your attitude.
What to do if they refuse to come? You have two options, depending on how urgent the situation is. If you are in a time crunch, you can use number 2 and 3. If you have lots of time, you can offer to hire a babysitter (hint: they pay, not you – in money or work).
Thankfully, I’ve only had to put the babysitter card on the table once, and that child quickly decided they would rather come and not have fun than stay and pay.
What if they aren’t dressed appropriately? Often, what your kids are wearing is just fine except for your embarrassment over being seen in public with a kid in pajamas. Embarrassment is your problem. If what they are wearing is not acceptable (just underwear, for instance), you can bring their clothes with you in the car.
6. “I’m happy to talk with you when your voice is calm like mine.”
Again, this is about boundaries. You are letting your child know that you love him and that you really do want to talk to him. However, your conditions for having a conversation are that his voice is calm and the tone normal (not whiny).
The first few times you use this, your kids won’t get it. They will continue to try to yell and whine as they did before, doing everything possible to break you down.
Then what do you do?
You repeat it, as many times as it takes, but always calmly and lovingly. If you need to put your brain on autopilot, do it. After enough times, I am so tempted to lose it, so I usually think about something else while the encounter is happening.
While losing your temper happens to the best of us, it’s best to avoid it because it shows kids that they can “make” mommy or daddy lose it.
7. “I’m feeling hassled right now.”
Update: I still use this idea, but only when it’s clear they are unable to work out things on their own. Other than encouraging them to negotiate, I try to avoid stepping into sibling fighting unless they are negatively affecting others outside of the fight, including me.
This phrase stops sibling fighting in ten seconds or less, I kid you not. It works mainly with older children (four and up). They need to be between four and five to understand the point.
When your kids start fighting, you say, “I’m feeling hassled right now.” The key is to look excited. You could even tack on a, “Please, keep fighting!”
At first, your kids will be super confused. What do you mean, hassled? And why does mom look excited?
Well, when mom is hassled, it means that she is about the be the receiver of free labor. The fighting kids are the ones who will be doing that work.
Once they stop fighting, you look super disappointed (and you probably will be – you could have gotten free vacuuming, after all!). Your kids learn that when they fight, they have to do free work and mom is really excited about it. When they get along, they don’t have to do mom’s work, and mom is slightly disappointed.
Reverse psychology has its benefits.
8. “I love you too much to argue with you.”
First let me define arguing as I’m using it here.
Arguing: to exchange or express diverging or opposite views, typically in a heated or angry way. (Merriam Webster Dictionary)
Arguing is when it’s beyond a healthy discussion, when there is nothing more to say than what has already been said.
I am ALL for having an honest discussion with my kids, for hearing their point of view. But sometimes, it reaches a point where the outcome isn’t going to change and they can’t accept that.
Arguing is when the discussion is becoming more and more heated because nothing new is being said, when the outcome is not changing at all (like when your child has to come with you on an errand and doesn’t want to).
For that kind of arguing? Nothing will drain you faster as a parent than that kind of argument, and kids can absolutely sense that. When they have no control over the outcome of a situation, kids will fight that inevitability with arguing.
And can you blame them? I’m the same way, but hopefully I handle it a bit better than my kids do.
While I do understand how they feel, I also know that continuing to argue doesn’t help them OR me. In fact, it delays them dealing with the fact that they can’t change the outcome. It also puts me in a position where I am more tempted to yell or say things I will regret later (you can say that makes me a bad parent, but I know myself and what I can and can’t handle).
“I love you too much to argue with you” tells your child that the decision has been made, the discussion is over. You love him to much to delay him figuring out how to accept the outcome of the discussion, and too much to continue when you, the parent, might be unkind in response.
You are loving him by setting a boundary.
The key is to say it in a loving tone (not angrily or sarcastically), and as many times as you need to.
These Phrases Really Do Work
I literally use these phrases every day, multiple times a day. They free up brain space to deal with all of the more complicated situations that require more thought and creativity.
That being said, I don’t claim that they handle every behavior problem you will encounter in the early childhood years.
For further guidance on how to use these phrases, the philosophy behind them, or more ideas on early childhood discipline, I recommend the following books, many of which I’ve read multiple times and go back to for reference.
Please note that the first two books mentioned are written from a Christian perspective.