5 Things You Should Never Say to a Child in Your Program


Recently, I saw a blog post headline entitled,

“8 Things You Should Never Say to Your Child.” The hook got me (of course) because, as a mother, I was immediately curious to see whether I had been guilty of saying any of them. There were, I admit, a couple I probably had, but fortunately I never told any of my children things like, “I wish you were more like your brother,” which was at the top of the list.

Reading that list now that my sons are all over thirty had little practical use, except as a reminder, I guess, not to say them to my grandsons. However, the post did get me thinking in a different direction. Certainly there are a number of things we shouldn’t say to the children we teach in child care or preschool programs. And, some of them would be the same ones on the parental do-not-say list, because our role and the parent role often overlap.

Would then, such a list be useful to an early care and education provider? Certainly, their education about developmentally appropriate practices and their experience would enable teachers to know what was or was not helpful or acceptable to say. Would this just be, then, good information for the new and somewhat inexperienced?

Well, not necessarily. Sometimes even seasoned teachers, in the midst of dealing with multi-tasks and the spirit of the moment, can find unexpected and spontaneous words leaving their mouths… words that may not even register at the time, but will be recalled later, perhaps with regret.

Ok, so what should be on this list of verbal no-no’s?


1.“If you _____again, I’ll take you down to Mrs. Alexander’s (the director’s) office.”

By saying this, you have now effectively relinquished your authority. The message is loud and clear to any child– whatever you say carries no weight because someone else is in charge.

This not only encourages a child to continually test your limits, but also begins a nasty cycle of making threats. Neither of these makes for a child’s positive social development, nor a pleasant and happy classroom atmosphere. Instead, be proactive and take care of business yourself.


2.“Why can’t you be a good listener and do what I ask like Maddie does?”

Nobody likes to be compared to someone else and have her shortcomings called out. This never encourages eager compliance and often has the opposite effect.

Also, subjective labels like “good” and “bad” need to be dropped. Hearing that she isn’t a “good” whatever it is can have a lasting impact on self-esteem.

Certainly, we can point out positive behavior when we see it, but there is no need to also point out those who are not doing likewise. Children usually want to please us and if they are given the criteria and some encouragement, they will be more likely to jump on the bandwagon.


3. “I’ve asked you three times now not to throw blocks. The next time you will leave the block area.”

In this situation, the teacher has already asked two too many times. Children need to be given parameters for behavior and appropriate consequences for breaching them. Then, the teacher needs to be consistent in following through each and every time.

When children are not used to someone who takes this approach, it may be a few days before things begin to click. But, the effort will definitely pay off. Soon, only one reminder will be needed, because every child knows the teacher meant it the first time.


4. “Here. Let me do that for you.”

One of our responsibilities as early educators is to foster independence and achievement motivation. Offering to do things for children that they are probably capable of learning to do themselves is counter-productive. Soon, the child gets the impression that it’s better not to try, because someone else will do it.

This is often done by teachers in order to save some time. It’s a lot quicker to help a child finish cutting out a shape than scaffold his attempts so he can do it himself.

Yes, some time might be saved, but at the expense of that child’s learning and then the teacher having to repeat her assistance many times over.

When visiting classrooms, I am often struck by how many teachers almost mechanically write a child’s name on his painting or other work, without even offering him a chance to do it himself. I always ask my students to think about this carefully: How would they feel if I came around the room and wrote their names on their papers? Usually several will say “disrespected.” Others say, “confused” or “incompetent.” Are these feelings we intend to evoke in young children? They may not yet be able to define these feelings, but there is an impact none the less. Often, then, a child’s exclamation of “I can’t do it!” is entirely teacher-driven.

Instead, provide a supply of chubby pencils and liberal encouragement for them to try it themselves. Even children as young as two should be given this opportunity. The observant teacher will soon recognize the distinctive “mark” or letter each child will routinely make on her papers. If a more legible name is still needed on a child’s work, it should only be written after he has left the table and then only on the back of the paper.


5.“Great job! That’s beautiful (wonderful, awesome, fantastic)!”

This type of praise is often an automatic response to any and all children. Soon, it becomes empty, meaningless, and phony. And, give young children some credit… they know it!

How much better it is to provide some heartfelt encouragement and acknowledgement, specific to what a child is doing.

“You really worked hard on this painting, Nolan. I like the colors you chose to use. Can you tell me about it?”


Now, Nolan knows you have truly paid attention to what he is doing, have remarked on his specific efforts, and even want to know more about his painting… and did not just say the same thing he hears you tell every other child, many times over.

It is this type of personal encouragement that means something and builds motivation and self-esteem.

These are just 5 things that children in your program should never hear, but I’m sure you could add to the list. Don’t assume that because children are little it doesn’t matter what you say, because it does. Our words have more impact than we realize, so it pays to think before we speak.

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