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Why Saying Good/Bad Child Is Harmful (Plus 7 Alternative Phrases)

Updated: Dec 28, 2021



Your child just made a mistake and that automatic record in your head makes you say “bad child.” Or they do something awesome and you say “good boy.” This is praising them though, right?


Wrong. I know you want to parent differently than your parents parented you, so let’s start with this first lesson. Using “good” or “bad” to describe our children teaches them they are only worthy when they are making good choices, and that one bad choice makes them a bad person. It tells our kids they aren’t loved the way they are and they can’t be loved if they are making human mistakes.


All Praise Is Equal, Right?


No. You want praise to describe the behavior you want to see more. When you simply say “good child,” you don’t even tell the child what they did well. If you say “good child” when they stop running on the pool deck, how do they know you weren’t praising the running? Or “good boy” because they sat next to their sister to color, how do they know you aren’t praising them for sitting or coloring? Praise should be specific and tell the child what you like or what you notice they are doing positively. Your child craves your positive attention, so give it to them for their specific good behaviors.


What Happens When We Call A Child A Good Child?

For our kids who are constantly labelled “good child,” they become fearful of mistakes, and remember, mistakes are what help us grow and learn. We have to move out of our comfort zone and make mistakes, then be able to forgive ourselves when we do, not feel like we are having an identity crisis.


What happens when we call a kid a bad child?

When children begin to believe they are a bad child, what stops them from acting like it? Their internal monologue may turn to, “I’m a bad kid, so why bother?” Let’s face it, the only truly “bad people” are Disney villains.


Luckily, there are alternatives to these phrases that you heard your parents or grandparents use and I’m here to help you find a few that work for your family.


Alternatives To Good/Bad Child:


1: ”I Know You Have A Good Heart. Even People With Good Hearts Make Mistakes.”


Saying I know you have a good heart'' shows that even though they made a mistake, they can do better and your child can still.


2: “That Was A Bad Choice, You Are Still A Good Person.”

Thus confirming to the child we all make mistakes.


3: “You Made A Mistake, How Can We Fix It Together?”


Statements like this show that you are on the same team and making mistakes is okay, it is about how you fix them that counts. Also, that parents will help you fix mistakes at times.


4: “I Didn’t Like How You Did ______. I Still Love You.”


This statement reminds your child that it's okay to make mistakes AND you will still be loved.


5: “You Did Such A Great Job On _____. You Must Be Really Proud Of Yourself.”


You as a parent should remind your child to be proud of themselves and their hard work. At the end of the day, it's the choices they make that count. As a parent, you won’t always be around, so they need to know how to be proud of themselves and make choices that can make them proud.


6: “That Was A Good Choice There To _____.”


When you as a parent emphasize your child's good choices, you make them feel proud of themselves and learn their own decision-making abilities. You want your child to know they can make good decisions and even what some of those decisions are.


7: “I Like How You ______.”


Labeled praises increase the behavior we want to see more. I know you want to see more positive behaviors so praise your child for whatever you like that they are doing well. Or whatever behaviors you want to see more of from your child, so if you have a bossy child, praise whenever they ask kindly.


Have I Caused My Child Untold Damage?!


No, you haven't. There is no manual given to parents, and it's okay if you have made mistakes before. The important part is recognizing it and working towards using more positive healthy communication in the future.


If you are a mom wondering if you can pass anxiety down to your kids, or how to be a good mom while depressed, check our blog. If you are wondering if it is time for family therapy or if you can continue to fix it on your own, click here.


If you are looking for family counseling and parenting help, Mary Willoughby Romm is a licensed professional counselor in the state of Virginia who provides online therapy for Willow Tree Healing Center. She enjoys transforming the lives of women, college students, kids, tweens/teens, and families through providing communication strategies, coping skills that work, allowing a safe space to be heard, and actively working towards helping you with your challenges. She is certified in Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (ages 2-7) and Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, counsels substance abuse in teens and adults, and practices Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy.


Please send an email to wthc@willowtreehealingcenter.org to explore working together.


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