Phrases that Nurture Respect, Confidence, and Community

A friend asks her injured companion, “What would be helpful?” and responds by kissing a wound.

A reader asked if I would compile a list of my go-to phrases that are useful in my daily work with young children.  She mentioned that in reading my blog, she finds herself writing down phrases that she can keep on hand for when life picks up the pace.

I thought it was a marvelous suggestion!  Keeping a list of phrases in your mental “back-pocket” can come in handy in any occasion.  I have included a list of phrases below with lots of links if you are interested in more of the why behind each phrase.

Each of these phrases originated in its own way: some, suggestions from friends and colleagues, others, the result of conferences I’ve attended or readings I’ve done.  Still others have grown organically out of my personal interactions with young children.  I am indebted to the entire early childhood community for its collective wisdom, especially voices found here.  Many phrases on this list were shared with me by Kelly Matthews and the young children in her in-home program, A Place For You Child Development Home (she now works as a consultant and is available for superb trainings through her business with the same name).  My language around problem solving was heavily influenced by Dan Gartrell’s The Power of Guidance and Barbara Kaiser and Judy Sklar Rasminsky’s Challenging Behavior in Young Children.

And now, the list:


  • What would be helpful?  When a child is sad, hurt, lonely, or angry, this phrase serves to keep the child in charge of her process.  Respect for the child’s body is one cornerstone of my work.  No kissing away a hurt without permission!
  • What’s your plan?  Useful when two children disagree, when a child and I are at an impasse, or when a child is working to solve a problem on his own, this phrase helps a child verbalize a course of action.
  • You feel strongly.  When someone is in the middle of a meltdown, these three words are emotionally cathartic.  They reflect back to the child her inner emotional reality which helps as she learns to connect with her feelings.  Also, “you feel strongly” respects a child’s right to define her emotional experience.  “You’re feeling sad” or “You’re really angry” – while possibly accurate, short-circuits the child’s chance to learn how she feels.
  • That was helpful/friendly/generous/gracious/etc.  The more specific our language with children, the more they can learn “life rules.”  We tend to casually drop guidelines without definitions.  Instead of: be kind, I need helpers, or share your toys, specific language supports the child’s growing knowledge of what it means to be a friend, to be helpful, or to be generous.
  • I see a problem.  I see two friends who both want ____.  What’s your plan?  I say it so often that I don’t often make it past the first sentence before children offer suggestions.  Allowing children the power to negotiate in the face of disagreement builds extraordinary confidence.
  • You wish you could ___.  I understand.  This phrase offers a basic empathetic connection with a child who feels strongly.  You wish you could play with the grasshopper.  I understand.
  • I will keep you safe.  Whenever I have to intervene with a child who is acting aggressively, I step in with as little physical restraint as necessary (blocking a hand from hitting, for example) and use this phrase.  Children need to know that we will help them when they feel out of control.
  • I remember when you couldn’t ___ and now you can!  Everyone is learning!  This phrase allows children to see their progress over time and celebrates the victories as they come.  One of our crew recently learned how to untie her shoes from a double knot.  I offered: I remember when you couldn’t untie your shoes and now you can!  Everyone is learning!  I glimpsed a face so full of pride it could not be contained without a joyful little dance.  Musician Tom Hunter has a song by this title and is the source for this insightful language.
  • You are in charge of your body.  I don’t want to paint!  No problem. You are in charge of your body.  I don’t want to eat my peas. No problem. You are in charge of your body.  I’m not tired.  No problem.  You are in charge of your body.  (Followed by, You can rest while your friends sleep.)

Now, for all the readers who would like a quick reference sheet, I created this just for you (from scratch, with my limited Photoshop skills…golf clap, everyone)!   If you would like to print a copy, right click on the image below and save it to your desktop.  I hope this is helpful!

**UPDATE (Oct/2014): Paula from Felices Criando graciously translated this list into Spanish!  If you are fluent in a second language and would like to offer a translation, please contact me.


Categories: Negotiating, Problem Solving, Respect, Social Development | Tags: , , , | 83 Comments

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83 thoughts on “Phrases that Nurture Respect, Confidence, and Community

  1. AdraKP

    Thank you!

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  4. Thank you. I have printed these to hang them on my wall and intend to practice on per day/week to integrate them fully for my children.

  5. These are wonderful words to parent by! I am a therapist who specializes in children & adolescents and of course I am constantly working with parents. I love this list and will definitely be sharing it with my parents.

  6. Dear Emily,
    I do realy love this article and I like to ask you for your permission to translate this article in the german language and puplish this one on facebook and on my hompage
    Thank you for your answer!
    Best reagrds, Eyliene

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  8. Meghan

    I am SO thankful you posted this. I’ve basically been looking for this exact thing to hang in our house to help me and most especially my partner remember how to communicate respectfully with our cpkids. Thank u!!!

  9. Adriane

    So many feeding your kid questions here. As a dietitian I highly recommend Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility. Have a consistent schedule for meals/snacks for your kids and offer a variety at the meals. No foods are bad or off-limits, always have at least two foods at the meal you know your kid will eat, and they can have as much as they want (desserts are only unlimited occasionally). You say when and what, they say if and how much. Nearly all kids (and it may take time if you haven’t been practicing it) can self-regulate, especially before the age of five and will learn to like all foods, rather than learning that sweets are a reward (never use food as a reward) and vegetables and the like are foods to be suffered through. I think we’d all be better off if raised this way.
    Otherwise I love this article as I was looking for less stressful ways to communicate with my three-year old.

    • I love Ellyn Satter, and I have a couple of articles on this blog about incorporating her style into families or child care settings. Thank you for taking the time to share! When I discovered Satter’s work, it made so much sense! ~Emily

  10. Reblogged this on A Game of Diapers and commented:
    This was such a great article I had to share. So excited I discovered this.

  11. Sara'smom

    Wishing to have these words in Spanish! Very helpful!

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  16. Austin

    Some of these seem legit, but the whole “what’s your plan?” thing is ridiculous. When a child is given too much open-ended freedom/choice, it’s just sloppy chaos. You need to display your place as the parent, the leader, the alpha, and set an example of what to do in a given scenario. If two children disagree, their “PLAN” is going to be whatever gets them what THEY want, regardless. If a child and adult disagree and you ask the KID what THEIR PLAN is? Bah! Here’s the deal, kiddo, I’ll tell you MY plan, and you can adhere to it yourself or I will ensure that you do. I am the parent. I make mine and your life possible. I make the sustenance. I make the important choices. You are dependent on me.

    Otherwise, some of these are nice.

    • Storm

      Why is it so bad that they get what they want? She doesn’t mean let your child plan all of your time or your whole life. The phrase simply helps communication happen, when a child may otherwise feel ignored and unimportant.

    • Hope

      I agree that children don’t quite have the critical thinking skills or knowledge, depending on how old they are, to know the proper plan. They have to be guided through the process to learn how to do best do things. Perhaps first have them state/identify what they want so they know their side has been heard, and then guiding them to understand the other point of view would be a good starting point. After establishing that understanding, asking them, “What do you think is the best thing to do?” would lead them to a win-win outcome.

    • Jenny

      definitely not true, even my 2 year old comes up with a plan and he now says’s I’ve got a plan. When I say to him, you want to play toys and I need to go to the shop. What shall we do have you got any ideas, he replied he other day: Play this game for 5 minutes and then we’ll go to the shop and we dd just that! Kids are far more capable than you can imagine.. You won’t get the chance to see this until you present them with the dilema, if you have always stepped in they wll have never shown their capability to step up.

      • Kristin

        Uh, okay…I see who’s truly in control of YOUR house…and it’s certainly not you!

      • Diane

        Uh, Kristin, I don’t see why you’re making judgements (based on one comment) over how someone else parents? But if you’re worried about control, the way I see it, Jenny is still the one guiding here… the solution has to be acceptable for all parties, and it sounds like it was in this example. Her child is gaining valuable skills by making this exercise. My 2 cents.

    • I use “what’s your plan” all the time in my work and it is a question that lets me work with the child to build a solution that works for BOTH of us. If “what’s your plan” is to crash everybody’s block tower after they’re howling nooooo don’t do that then there’s more work to do. Hmmm, I can’t let you crash their towers, they’re pretty mad about it, but let’s think of another idea. “Crash your own tower” became a rule in our group and applies to the bigger world a bit too, I think! What’s your plan doesn’t imply a free pass to do whatever but can be a great way to help children look at their behavior and shape solutions.

    • Kristin

      I absolutely agree. You can give a toddler a few choices, but in order to establish boundaries that are healthy and productive, you need to be the authority figure and call most of the shots. It is your duty as a parent to provide stability and certainty to a child who cannot or will not figure things out on their own. Also, while a child may be in control of WHO touches their body, they need to go to bed when you tell them, try new foods when you present them, or do their work/homework when you say so. A child under the age of 18 is just that…A CHILD. They need a parent, not a friend.

    • The way I did this, when my kids were little, was to first teach them how to compromise, throw out some suggestions and then say – you have 2 minutes to work something out – a way to share or compromise or I will make a decision for you. Then, I’d give them 2 minutes and if they didn’t find a way to work it out, I’d take it all away. For example, I’d take away all screen time for the rest of the day if they were fighting over the TV, take away whatever toy they were fighting over for the rest of the day, etc. They very, very quickly learned that they did not want mom involved in their disputes, learned to work things out and at the current time, as teens, they pretty much never fight – they compromise. It was funny when they were little and I would say “Do you really want ME to come help you work this out?” and they’d all say NO! and before I knew it, peace would reign. 🙂

  17. Emily

    Great! Thank you:) Just wondering how the last one works when they Have to do something, ie go to bed at some point in the evening, stay in their car seat whilst driving, stay by mommy in the shop and not run into the road, etc..?

    • Audrianne

      It works because the child feels validated in not wanting to do something — it takes away the head-butting power struggle, “no I won’t, yes you will, no I won’t…etc.”, but then as the parent you follow up with what you expect the child will do (i.e., the author gives the example of “you can rest while your friends sleep” when the child has said they don’t want to take a nap. You are still stating (and hopefully sticking to!) your expectation, boundaries and limits, but also acknowledging the child’s resistance.

  18. Heather

    Thanks for this resource! A friend of mine linked to it on Facebook. I appreciate all the ideas your blog gives about helping children learn to manage themselves, and also the focus on the importance of respecting what a child wants to happen to his/her body.

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  22. alythmum

    We also have the phrase ‘I believe you are mistaken’ which we use and the the children are encouraged to use rather than ‘No, You’re wrong’ and arguments starting

  23. What a great list -Thank you so much for posting it – so helpful!
    I would also add one of my favourites: “It’s your decision, what do you choose?” it empowers kids, builds confidence and teaches them important decision making skills. It has also helped me get out of sticky situations with my almost 3 years old boy. If he is not interested in doing something such as get dressed or tidy up, this magical sentence immediately makes him focus on the choice he has and the decision he needs to make rather than then the rebellious “no, i don’t want to”.. He is too excited with the power given to him to keep saying no…

  24. Peggy

    Love the poster; thank you! As I was reading this, I was thinking… I need to post these on the wall where I can always see them. Done! Great suggestions🙂

  25. kinneretb

    I love your phrases but have a problem to which you might offer a suggestion. “You are in charge of your body” – I completely believe in this – however, my ADHD boy will not eat dinner, then want to snack for the entire evening. He HAS to eat because of his body weight, this is a medical issue. How can I be congruent with “you are in charge of your body” yet insist that he eats? He is 7, but I thought you might have an idea, as I am completely out and also tired of the dinner table (and the time from then till bedtime!) being a battleground. THank you!

    • Hello! Thank you for your thoughts. You bring up a really important issue, and it’s one that I’m not entirely qualified to answer. I don’t have specific medical training to speak with authority about childrens’ specific medical issues. And I know medication and side effects can create an almost impossible situation. At the same time, there may be some strategies to help. You say that the time from dinner until bed is a constant battleground…I’m curious to know more. What specifically is troubling around those routines? What happens for your son before dinner? Is he away at school during the day? I imagine he has been “keeping it together” at school and is compensating for all that difficult (but pro-social) behavior when he gets home. I think “you are in charge of your body” must find a way into the routine, however you find it works. I am pretty firm about meals taking place at mealtime and at the meal table. But you may decide it is more important for your son to dictate when he eats, as long as there are reasonable parameters about what and where that satisfy your family’s needs. You might also decide that he doesn’t have to eat during dinnertime if he’s not hungry (and can have a snack later), but he must sit at the table with the family. Keeping other stimulation to a minimum during mealtimes (no television, as little up-and-down from the table as possible, etc) will be helpful. You might find that overlooking some of the minor behaviors at the table might help. Perhaps there is a way to accommodate a different table position (like standing instead of sitting, as long as there is a single place where he stays standing so he doesn’t wander during the meal). I’m guessing if he has been really moderating his behavior throughout the day, he is needing to feel some autonomy and power. The more choices he has at dinner while still fitting into the overall framework of the meal plan, the better. Can he help select the menu? I don’t know if *any* of this will help – it sounds like you are dealing with issues that are more medical in nature. Best of luck to you with your son!

    • Shannah

      We have a similar issue with my 8 year old, although he does not ADHD. He wants to eat a couple of bites at dinner and then ask for a snack 30 minutes after leaving the table. The rule here is that if he doesn’t eat his dinner at the table, he has to eat it later for his snack. There is no skipping dinner and filling up on snacks later. I’ll reheat his dinner for him after bath time, if necessary. But there are no snacks until dinner is eaten.

    • Tiffany

      Emily, perhaps we can broaden the question. That was my first one of “uhhhh, yeah, can’t do that” because SOME things – not many – but some things ARE NOT a choice – like eating something healthy for dinner. Left to their own devices, her ADHD, my mildly Autistic, and frankly, every 4 year old I know, will want cookies or fruit chews or _____, instead of dinner. Sometimes we DO have to make choices for their bodies. Medicine is another example.

      How does that work?

      • Hi Tiffany,

        I completely agree…if there is a non-negotiable, then it would be inappropriate to ask a child’s opinion. I don’t offer my children a choice of what to eat, but they can choose from the options I have provided. If we are eating dessert, then it is a choice at the table alongside everything else. But it would be irresponsible for me to offer sweets instead of the healthy foods a child needs. As for the example of the peas, often a child’s refusal is tied to a need for power and autonomy. When a power struggle is removed, children are free to choose what they need. When a child refuses peas, for example, I don’t offer a second choice. (Don’t like peas? No problem – have a yogurt, or a package of fruits snacks.) I have a couple of articles on mealtimes, and I strongly recommend Ellyn Satter’s work. With medicines and other non-negotiables (shots, for example), my line is always: “I know you don’t want to. I’m sorry, but this is not a choice. It is important for your body because of…. I will stay here with you while you ___.) I think it is important to empathize with a child when they don’t like a choice we have to make for their bodies.

        Thank you all! As always, you know your children and their situations far better than I do…I send you my best as you make the best choices for *your* children!

        Warmly, Emily

      • Ulandi

        Once I asked my two year old what she wants dinner. She replied broccoli! I then made risotto with chicken and broccoli. She ate mostly broccoli!! If they know the parameters for what can be dinner of course they can be involved in choosing it.

    • Diane

      Hi there, I have five year old who finds a milion things to do at dinnertime other than coming to the table. He’s a skinny thing too, so I’m kind of with you on this one.

      I’m wondering if there’s a way of making him understand that ‘being in charge of his body’ also means the responsibility of maintaining (feeding, washing, …?) it. He’s not being a good boss if he’s not helping his body be strong…

      I imagine what you mean by ‘the dinner table and afterwards’ has to do with getting him there and then seeing he eats (not talking, fiddling, escaping) and most likely it’s not fun afterwards… either because he maybe *hasn’t* eaten (enough), or because it was such hard work making getting that plate empty that you didn’t have a chance to enjoy your meal and are wound up. So frustrating!

      With lots of falling down and getting back up again, we’re trying to work with Laura Markham’s ideas around connection to diffuse some of these things. Not sure if it’s bad form for me to mention other blogs here but she has a parenting site that is a treasure trove… I’m sure there would be some interesting articles there for you, adhd or not! Good luck with it!

    • Jamie

      Following the answer because you’re not alone mama! We’re in the same boat. Hugs to you and your family!

    • Chaya

      My son has the same issue. I heard about a mother that had a ” no thank you portion” at dinner. It works like this you ask if they want x y or z, if not they get a 3 bite portion, that’s the no thank you, or I don’t want it amount. My dinner rule was we eat as a family and there is no extra eating after dinner. The kitchen is closed. My son is taking meds that drop his appetite and he was super thin to start with so I told him about that effect of the meds and told him what happens in the body with good and poor eating habits. Them said I would put the proper amount he should eat on the plate, he should eat till he was full and then do 3 more bites because of the meds making him think he was full but he was not. He was really great about doing it and became more in touch with his eating. Plus he gained weight and felt much better and in charge of his body. I also have help making dinner sometimes. You only need to have a no thank you portion three time after that you done need to try a new food, but dinner is on the table not hiding in the snack cupboard. At one point we had no snack food in the house.

  26. Melina

    Wow, not just young children. Every administrator should learn to use these phrases!

  27. I love these child-respecting, growth-nurturing phrases. Sharing!

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  30. I love your phrases. Thank you for sharing.

  31. Louise R.

    Emily, You left out… “Tastes change.” I learned that one from you.
    “You might want to try those _peas_ again because ‘tastes change’.”

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  35. Kirstie

    I do love a good list – thank you! My two year son is very verbal, I can just see him taking up “You are in charge of your body” with gusto – especially around food he doesn’t want to eat and nappy changing time (!!), so I’m probably not so keen on that one. However, I love You feel strongly, You wish you could… and I will keep you safe. Actually I love them all :>

    Can I ask a question? I see in your comment above that you work with children birth to age 5, do you find these phrases work with the younger subset of this age of children? While I do think these would work well with my son, I wonder if he might need an example or two to ge the concept moving. I am also thinking about other children in my local playgroup. Do you think offering a prompt or choice would be ok? For example, “What would be helpful? Would you like a cuddle or a kiss (or whatever is appropriate for the situation)?” Or is it ok for them not to answer?

    Thanks again!

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  37. Ruby Roberts

    How beautiful is this blog? How about this one for parents?

    “You didn’t know how to help these kids sort out their squabbles and now you do! Everyone is learning!”

  38. Genevieve

    How do you deal with the toddler who won’t rest quietly but does need a nap?

    • abundantlifechildren

      Hi Genevieve,

      If you don’t mind, I would love to solicit my Facebook community for some ideas here. Mostly, I provide a predictable environment that is conducive to sleep (dark, soft music to muffle the noises of quietly talking children, naps at the same time and in the same place everyday, the same routine before naps…) — beyond that, if a child is not sleeping, I offer quiet activities (books, soft dolls, etc). With the youngest ones, I lay next to them until they fall asleep while they get used to sleeping on their own on a cot. Keep in mind, I am working with a program of youngsters from birth to age 5…it makes a difference when the children are not related to me. My own children have a more difficult time staying on their beds. For them, I continue to remind them: “Now is resting time. I will put you back in your bed.” with as little emotional involvement as possible. I hope this helps! I would love to post this on Facebook to see if others have ideas.

      • Sami

        My 2 older quit napping early. We have “quiet hour” now and I have a visual timer on the iPad. They are allowed to do quiet activities and whisper. It’s not a huge deal, just time for quiet. The timer was the key to it working for us though. They needed to know how long it would be.

    • Jump in bed with them. It’s a win win, usually resulting in lots of snuggles, and sleep from them🙂

  39. Very helpful! Thank you very much. I am going to share this with all my friends.

  40. And just to further ‘credit’ where credit (and so much more is due), the phrase, “I remember when you couldn’t do that . . .” actually comes from a Tom Hunter song and can be found here: (along with other really good kids’ music that won’t make your ears bleed).

    • Thank you so much for adding this!! I’ll be adding it to the post – I didn’t realize you learned this from him, though I also know the song, and I’m not surprised!!🙂

  41. juliane

    Emily, so proud to call you my sister! This is great stuff. I will be using it with the boys!

  42. Melanie Seier

    Beautiful sheet! Printing off, laminating, and using in the future! 🙂

  43. This is great, thank you! I found your page recently, and amidst the sea of “natural parenting” this and that, yours always speaks to me the most and is the most helpful. I love this, thanks again!

  44. Thank you for this summary and the WONDERFUL reminder sheet – I am going to print it off and put it on my refrigerator right now! You really do provide such amazing resources, Emily. From all of out here in cyberspace – thank you!

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