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What Parents Can Say to Raise Secure Children

Words have the power to create security or insecurity.

Words have a powerful effect on your children. What you say impacts what they think about themselves and their world, the actions they take as they explore their world, and the emotions they experience as they interact with their world. Your words can create a child who is secure and comfortable with themselves. Or, your words can cause a child to feel insecure and threatened in their world. I have found that parents can be proactive in their use of words as a positive tool of development with their children by creating ‘catchphrases’ that encourage security, confidence, and comfort.

My wife, Sarah, and I learned our catchphrase for security from our eldest daughter, Catie, when she was learning to walk. As you know, learning to walk is a challenging experience for children, perhaps their biggest to date, and there are a lot of trips and falls, scraped knees and tears along the way. Like every parent out there, when Catie would fall down, we would immediately run to her to be sure she was okay and comfort her if she was hurt (which she usually wasn't). Even before there were any messages from her that she needed help! Then, one day Sarah and I observed a similar situation at a playground in which a little girl fell down and her mother came racing to her screaming as if her daughter had been run over by a truck. We looked at each other and said that could easily be us.

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The next time we were out for a walk with Catie, she, as usual, fell down. But instead of rushing to her, we just waited a few seconds. And in those brief moments, our catchphrase was born. Catie got to her knees and announced to us, “I'm okay!” From that day forward, for both Catie and her sister, Gracie, whenever they did something that could hurt them, for example, tripping while running or falling off a chair, we let them tell us if they were hurt and whether they needed us.

More often than not, no damage was done and they would let us know with an “I'm okay!” On the occasions when bruises were sustained or blood was spilled, our girls let us know, usually with a cry for help or tears, and we would go to them and calmly and supportively provide the comfort that they asked for. If they didn't say anything at first, we took this as an essential moment when they were figuring out if they were okay. Children are, after all, the best judges of their own well-being, but they need these sorts of experiences, and the time to assess their own condition, to hone these capabilities.

By rushing to them, especially in a panicked state, you deprive your children of the opportunity to figure out their own state of well-being on their own. You also send the message that the world isn’t a safe place and that they can’t take care of themselves.

Even in situations where there was potential risk, we empower our girls to decide for themselves when they get out of their comfort zone and want our support. For example, Catie and Gracie love to walk on a stone wall in our front yard (with a four-foot drop to the street!). We made a rule that they couldn't walk on it unless we were there to spot them. But we never offered or told them that they had to hold our hand for safety. It was always up to them to decide when they got uncomfortable and wanted our hand for added comfort. We now use this catchphrase—“I'm okay!”—and the approach with all of our girls’ exploration and risk-taking including more complex and potentially dangerous situations such as skiing and biking.

Admittedly, this approach didn't always work out that well. When Catie was four years old, she wanted to walk along another stone wall in our backyard with a three-foot drop to a concrete path. As I tend to allow our girls to take more risks than Sarah, I said she could. I hadn't noticed that there were some flowery vines that obscured the edge of part of the wall and Catie lost her footing and fell to the path below. Fortunately, she somehow missed hitting her head on another lower wall on the other side of the path (that would have been really bad!) and the only damage Catie sustained was a big bruise and a small cut on her forehead. Of course, I suffered a near heart attack and a deserved glare from Sarah and, to this day, the image of Catie falling still haunts me.

Dirk and Emily had the idea for their catchphrase for their son Harry from day one. From the time he was born, whenever they came to him, they would say, “I'm here for you.” Whether due to a wet diaper or hunger as an infant, to the inevitable bumps and bruises of a toddler, to the failures and frustrations of a pre-schoolers, Dirk and Emily sent Harry the message that, when he needed them, they were there for him. By the time Harry got to be two years old, he had gotten the message. When Harry would, for example, climb high on a play structure, he would ask, “Are you here for me?” to one of his parents who might be spotting him. And they would say, “Yes, Harry, I'm here for you.”

Yuki and Mitch adopted their children, Gregor and Vera, from an Eastern European orphanage when they were three and one years old, respectively. Though they learned that the orphanage was, by the country's standards, quite nurturing, they had read that adopted children often have difficulty attaching to their new parents and feeling secure after a life that was anything but. So, from the time Gregor and Vera arrived in their new home, the catchphrase Yuki and Mitch used (they referred to it as their mantra) was “Safe and sound.” From those simple words, they sent a message to their two children that communicated security, comfort, and stability.

Erin, the mother of three-year-old Ross, loved the catchphrase idea, but decided to take it one step further. She had read somewhere that having a rating system to judge risk helps children make better choices in their risk taking. The article suggested a numbered system of one for low risk to five for high risk. Around the time that she saw the article, Ross had fallen off his tricycle and came to his mother crying and said, “Mommy, I had a bonk.” It was then that Erin had the idea of a “catchphrase rating system” in which Ross could rate the potential risk of doing something and the severity of an injury on a scale of “bonkness.” For example, Ross loves using a curb on their street as a balance beam. The problem is that if he fell off the curb along some parts of the street, he could fall down a steep embankment. Erin and Ross decided that this risk would result in a “mondo bonk” and he would have to hold his mother's hand while walking on the curb on those sections of the street. Moderately risky stuff, such as bouncing on his parents' bed, would rate a “medium bonk” and less risky stuff, like tripping while running on their backyard lawn, only warranted a rating of “baby bonk.”

Rita and Sam believed in teaching their two-year-old daughter Emmy the skills she needed to feel safe. So they thought of the most common ways in Emmy could get hurt at their house and developed routines to give her the means to prevent these situations from arising. For example, they had a steep stone stairway from their garage to their flat. So, they created a catchphrase, “Hold it!” which had double meaning: stop before walking up or down the stairs and hold onto the railing when using the stairs.

Tanya has a different take on security. She emphasizes the security that children can rely on that comes from being a part of a family. Her catchphrase is “Family forever,” sending the message that her son and daughter can always count on their family to love and support them. 

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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