One Good Phrase: Kristen Howerton (You’re better than that.)

If you don’t know Kristen Howerton’s blog, Rage Against the Minivan, you are missing out on her wisdom, compassion and super sharp wit. She’s a gem. I’m thrilled to have her here today.

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I was an amazing parent before I had kids. I had grand ideas about the kind of affirming, patient mother I would be to small children. Prior to having kids of my own, I work as a family therapist. This meant I saw many families in the various states of crisis or dysfunction. I commonly advised my clients of the importance of positive reinforcement with their children. It seemed to me like the parents I saw struggling with focusing on the negative aspects of their children’s behavior – almost as if it was a occupational hazard of parenthood. I was sure that when it came my turn, I would be able to live up to the “ten compliments for every criticism” mantra that I advised my clients to adapt.

And then I had a child. Four of them, actually, in rapid-fire succession. And as they say: the rubber met the road. I found that it was not quite as easy as I had thought to be more positive than negative when interacting with a large brood of small children. Young kids are hard work. They are physically and emotionally draining. I found myself in short reserves of both patience and empathy. It is a challenge to dole out more praise than discipline.

When life gets busy (and it always does, doesn’t it?) it becomes easy to move so fast that the only interaction with our children is to address concerning behavior. I have certainly fallen into this pattern. Our days are sometimes moving at such a quick pace that I feel like I am just putting out fires, rather than having the time to be really intentional with our interactions.

On the other side of the equation, the reality is that children often need redirection and discipline. With four kids, it is inevitable that at any given moment, one of them maybe quarreling with another breaking a rule, or otherwise in need of some guidance. When this happens, it is easy to point out the negative. And even though I try to use kind and gentle phrases, I feel like I’m still imparting a lot of criticism throughout the day:

You were doing something wrong.

This behavior is not allowed.

You are making a poor choice.

I don’t like what I am seeing.

All of these are fine interventions for negative behavior, but we came up with a phrase that we think better corrects a child while still affirming that we believe in who they are, and see them in a more positive light than their current behavior reflects.

The phrase that has stuck with us for addressing problematic behavior really came from our youngest son. He had gone to a skate park, and heard a phrase some of the older boys used with one another:

“You’re better than that, bro.”

At first we chuckled at this phrase, because it sounded so funny coming from a six-year-old. He apparently thought it was quite cool and used it frequently with his siblings. But then, we started adopting it ourselves in moments when our children’s behavior was less than ideal. When one of our kids is acting out we will, instead of chiding them, subtly mentioned the phrase. You’re better than that.

I love the way this phrase addresses behavior. It points out that we don’t like what they’re doing, but at the same time It also indicates that we have to say that who they are as a person is better then the behavior they are displaying.

Calling someone a name? You’re better than that.

Being dishonest? You’re better than that.

Speaking disrespectfully to a parent? You’re better than that.

The great thing is, we have found that this more affirming phrase actually results in better behavior from our children. They feel less shame. And they want to live up to the better person that we imagine them to be. This small change in phrasing has been hugely helpful for us as a family. And we have an anonymous teen boy at the skate park to thank.

Kristen is a marriage and family therapist and professor of psychology at Vanguard University. Kristen is the author of the blog Rage Against the Minivan, where she explores issues of identity, race, adoption, parenting, and the sometimes embarrassing indignities of motherhood. In addition to her own blog, Kristen is the editor of ShePosts, an online magazine dedicated to women in social media. She is also a regular contributor to Disney’s parenting site Babble, as well as to Huffington Post and OC Family Magazine.  Kristen has made numerous television appearances to talk about parenting issues, including CNN, The View, The Ricki Lake Show, Good Morning America, and The Today Show. In the spring of 2010, Kristen lost her long and passionate battle against the minivan.  It now sits in her driveway covered in crushed cheerios and remnants of her self-esteem.

  • http://messymiddle.com/ Amy Young

    What I’ve always loved about this phrase, as you point out, is that it invites me to something instead of shaming me.

  • http://www.lifewithroozle.com/ Casey

    We’ve been REALLY struggling with our four year old lately. I’m going to try this tonight, as I’m sure she will throw a shoe at me like she has every day this week.

  • Sandi

    I was telling my husband just last night that I feel like some days all I do is pour out negative statements to my 14 year old. This is such a simple phrase that says so much more than all the “lectures” I could give. And, honestly, he really doesn’t need the lectures, he just needs a simple reminder of what he already knows to be true, because he really is a great kid. Thanks for this.

  • Leah Ness

    I watch two little boys, ages 2 and 4, who are going through the usual bad behavior that comes with the age. I’ve used the phrase ‘you know better than that’, many a time but never ‘you’re better than that’. I like the way it sounds, giving them something to live up to rather than something to live down. I’m eager to give it a try and see what happens.


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