5 Words Every Child (and Parent) Should Understand

The myriad benefits of a shared vocabulary.

Posted Feb 17, 2020

Kids are learning machines. The good, the bad, and the ugly; little ones seem to pick up on it all. But when it comes to behavior in the home, there seems to be a fair amount of confusion. Parents wonder how their child could possibly have thought a behavior was appropriate and children wonder why their parent got so mad at them for something they thought was totally reasonable! Like learning a new language, parents seeking to have better communication with their children may benefit from developing a shared vocabulary.

As such, this article seeks to provide and define five critical parenting terms that parents and their child(ren) should be on exactly the same page about. And, let me add the caveat that agreeing with my opinion of the definition of these words is not important compared to making sure you and your child agree with each other on your definition. Confusion begets frustration and communication mitigates confusion. With this in mind, let's tackle the five words every child (and parent) should understand.


These are the tasks your child is expected to complete. They should be developmentally appropriate and incorporate a motivating element. For example, a grade-school child should be expected to appropriately dress him or herself; the inherent motivation being a sense of pride in developing the skill to get oneself ready and the enjoyment of experiencing relinquished parental control. Again, responsibilities must be given with the child's physical and psychological maturity in mind. For an older child, staying on top of academic tasks is a responsibility usually completely relinquished to the child by middle or high school.

Responsibilities can also be given with external motivators. Chores, for example, may or may not be rewarded by something deemed appropriate by the parent: a treat, an appropriate allowance, etc. New privileges may also come with responsibility: the use of the family car may come with the responsibility to keep the gas tank full.


When a child is given something they deem positive, that comes either by choice of their parents or as a part of reaching a certain developmental stage, this is a privilege. A child may be promised a bike once they reach their 10th birthday. In this case, the child has access to the bike within the given, developmentally appropriate restraints communicated clearly by their parents. The difference between a privilege and a reward is that a privilege is not earned but rather given. This is not to say it can't be removed – it certainly can as a consequence. Benefits that are earned should be differentiated from typical privileges by terming them rewards so as to communicate that earning them is contingent on behavior.

If you feel that the differentiation between these two terms is nominal and unimportant, it has been too long since you've gotten into an argument with a 12-year-old who remembers exactly what you said three Tuesdays ago and is now using it against you. Clarity is our friend when it comes to communication with kids!

Rewards and Consequences

Motivators utilized by parents to elicit a behavior – or decrease the likelihood of a behavior reoccurring – are termed rewards and consequences, respectively. A good report card may earn the reward of a pizza night while a call home from school may earn the consequence of loss of a privilege. Privileges can be granted and removed at the discretion of the parents. For example, a parent may say: "if you come home past curfew again, you will lose your privilege to use the car as a consequence."

In general, younger children tend to respond better to consequences and rewards that are explicitly stated ahead of time. Earning these rewards or receiving these consequences not only motivates more desirable behavior but also instills a sense of responsibility in the child for their own actions. When children are younger, their thinking is more concrete (think contractual – children are born lawyers). While a teen may be motivated by an offer to take them shopping if they get good grades for the semester, a younger child will want to know exactly what grades they need to get, where you'll be taking them, how much they're allowed to spend, and how many Wetzel's Pretzel's kiosks they'll be allowed to visit.


Constantly evolving and developing in response to the slightest change in environment, expectations can be the most difficult concept to communicate to a child. Socio-cultural mores that seem secondhand to adults are new information to children. Imagine your 6-year-old running around with other children during a wedding reception – developmentally appropriate! Identical behavior at a funeral? Embarrassing.

This is why it's so important to communicate your behavioral expectations to your child(ren) in context. At the grocery store, you may say, "Hey buddy, the expectation for you right now is that you stay close to the cart…" and then add a motivator "…if you stay close for the whole time we're in the store, I will buy you one piece of candy in the checkout line as a reward." Then, if and when the little kiddo runs off, you can calmly explain to him "because you did not meet the expectation for your behavior, you will not be getting your reward." Time and consistency combine to teach the child that they are responsible for their own behavior and they are ultimately in charge of deciding whether or not they receive their reward.

The goal here is to develop and maintain a shared language with which to communicate appropriate expectations, clear boundaries, and effective consequences for a child's behavior. Of course, mastering these terms is just the first step to building consistent communication with your child. Given the difficulty – for adults and children – in unlearning old habits of miscommunication, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Start using these principles consistently with your kids when they're young and reap the benefits of less stress, fewer screaming matches, and minimal communication frustration when they're older.