Six Words to Say to Your Child

I read some parenting advice last week, and I can’t stop thinking about it…

My sister sent me this blog post by Hands Free Mama, in which she quotes a survey:

“College athletes were asked what their parents said that made them feel great, that amplified their joy during and after a ballgame. Their overwhelming response: ‘I love to watch you play.‘ “

Isn’t that lovely? These kids didn’t want to hear criticism or coaching or even praise from their parents. They simply wanted to hear that their parents loved to watch them play. Kids get enough pressure from teachers, coaches, peers and themselves; you just want unconditional love from your parents, right?

This weekend, I tried it out. Toby was playing his toy guitar and instead of saying, “You’re a great guitar player,” or “Here, hold it like this instead,” I just said, “Toby, I love watching you play!” He looked up, gave me a huge smile and broke into a rousing rendition of “Down By the Bay.” The next morning, we were hanging outside with some friends, and he was dancing around on the grass. I laughed and said, “Toby, I love watching you dance,” and he just beamed.

And imagine if someone said it to you—for example, think of the difference between “You’re a great karaoke singer” and “I love to watch you sing karaoke.” Doesn’t the latter make you feel much more confident and free to goof around and not be perfect? All you have to do is sing karaoke, you don’t have to be a genius at it. It’s remarkable how much those words take the pressure off.
We loved to watch them swing like monkeys during dinner on Friday night:)

What do you think? Will you say those words to your children? Or even friends and spouses? Or do you think it’s all psychobabble? xoxo

P.S. More linguistics: How to introduce people, and how to talk to little girls.

(Thanks, Lucy!)

  1. Kristyn says...

    I read this piece when it was published seven years ago, and tried it with my then four-year-old son. I still use this phrase with him, though he’s now an 11 year old mini-man, and also with my eight-year-old daughter, who responds invariably with a beaming smile, and even more enthusiasm for whatever it is she’s doing at the time. Thank you for sharing such genuine and beautiful advice. I have always, and will always love your blog.

  2. Paulina Lamas says...

    Awesome share! I’m a mother to be and while surfing the net I came across your blog, this is the second post I’ve read in a row and it tear me up! I’m expecting a baby boy and as a single mom I want to be his biggest support and these type of suggestions really help me prepare for the most one of the most unique moments of my life, parenthood :)

  3. shannon Lazcano says...

    I think to myself what should I say to my daughter to praise her for her participation and first year of learning how to play basketball at 7 y.o. who is 1 out of 3 girls (rest boys) basketball team. Not to mention she is the shortest and smallest child on the team. I was worried she would have difficulty reaching the hoop tossing such a heavy ball that high up ( the hoop is lowered to accomadate the young children too! ) My goal is to keep both my dtrs involved in a sport or activities they enjoy and I have insisted each sport offered to join and in the end they can decide if the sport is for them or to try out for another sport. Today is game day and is the 5th game this year. Compared to the first game where they werent sure what most of the rules were, which way to run and ran carrying ball alot of the time…they are now grasping the rules of the game which shows my their confidence out there on the court. I have said to my daughter in the past during and after the games, “I am so impressed Ava, your an awesome basketball player” to acknowledging her improved skills to providing ponters what to do better next time. I am not sure just how much she actually enjoys playing. In the old days the kids didnt play on a co-ed team and I feel that prevents my daughter from gaining the entire experience because later in her life if she continues to play, such as in HS the teams are not co-ed and your not having to play side by side of the opposite sex. Remember that when she plays she is the only girl with 4 other boys as they rotate in/out through the games. The option of playing with all girls isnt possible as long as she continues to play for her school. After todays game I am going to say, ” Ava, I love watching you play basketball ” I agree this takes off any pressure she may feel, if she does idk, but I love the concept and will implement it today! Thanks for the recommendation!

  4. Anuj says...

    I think I’ve found a treasure here; I mean your website. As a father of a 2.75 year old girl, I am always looking for ways to implement ‘Kaizen’.

  5. Janelle says...

    Ugh, Jo, you did it again. Thank you. I love reading your advice!

  6. Interesting. By coincidence I too say this to my children. Because it’s true;)

  7. This is the best parenting advice EVER. I also clicked on how to talk to little girls, which was a fantastic reminder for me to keep working on the conversations I have with kids. Mostly, conversing with kids baffles me. Fortunately, my own daughter can talk forever with just the odd ‘oh really?’ thrown in by me.

  8. After 25 years of marriage, my husband told my friend that he loves hearing my voice. I still remember that and smile

  9. I think this is just a beautiful thing for parents to say to their children — it sends the message that your pleasure in them is unconditional, which is exactly what little ones need from their mom and dad!

    I do have a problem when this attitude extends everywhere — the classroom, the playing field, etc. The reality of it is that some things in life ARE based on performance. A parent’s job is two-fold — one, to love them and two, to prepare them for adulthood in the real world. If they are only exposed to positive affirmation, no matter the quality of their performance, it breeds the type of delusional culture our “generation X” is suffering from by expecting fantastic jobs, living situations, cars, friends in exchange for no effort.

  10. CC says...

    This is great! I don’t know anything about montessori (maybe I’ll have to read up on it) but one of the best compliments I have ever received was from a guy in college who said that he loved to listen to me talk about biology. He said he hated the subject but he loved how I’d light up and be so passionate talking about it that he could listen for hours. Maybe that was just him trying to get in my pants but it made me feel great. Even thinking about it now puts a huge smile on my face.

  11. What beautiful words. So simple and true.

  12. This is an informative post review. I am so pleased to get this post article. I was looking forward to get such a post which is very helpful to us. A big thank for posting this article in this website. Keep it up.

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  13. Great Advice

  14. mi mom never quite said it like that.. but i cant remember her missing a home game AT ALL during my 3 years of varsity basketball(!!)

    when i hear from a colleague “oh you know it was just high school or my mom/dad never went to a game, they were always working” i feel even luckier and luckier.

    Oh, and she was loud too. everyone KNEW who she was cheering for… as I grow older i melt even more. she didnt care it was high school, she acted like my team and i were celebrity pro’s. how special!
    telling her tomorrow thanks, again<3

  15. This post is exactly what I needed! My husband and I have this continual disagreement about whether you should praise your children, even if their drawings suck or whatever, and I think after reading this my husband is the winner. Well, sort of. I just need to rephrase the praise I will give my future child :)

  16. Love it! I am inspired.

  17. My boyfriend is a wonderful cook and likes to try new recipes out on me. I love watching him cook…but when he catches me watching and asks, “What?” I always smile and answer, “Nothing.” Now I’m interested to see how he responds when I try this. Thanks for sharing!

  18. I am constantly inspired by posts from Hands Free Mama.
    I think it’s such a beautiful thing to share and say!

    xoxo PARIS BEE kids blog

  19. Thank you for sharing. I will try it today.

  20. I read this same thing a couple weeks back. I agree completely and I have also tried to put it into use. There is a time and a place for all sorts of learning. There is also a place for simple appreciation of the effort. Along these same lines I read an article which shed light on the specific words we use to praise our daughters. How we often tell them how pretty they are, but rarely how smart or accomplished (“what a pretty dress you are wearing” or “you look like a princess”!). Yet for our sons, it is just the opposite (“what a great ball player you are”, or “what a gentleman to open the door”!). Subtle ways our society reinforces different priorities into our children from a young age. Another interesting read that gave me some food for thought!

  21. it’s observing without passing judgment, montessori indeed. if you want to mix it up a bit, I also like to say “you look like you’re having so much fun doing fill-in-the-blank”. the idea is that a child’s pleasure should be derived from the doing of the task at hand rather than success or perfection of the end result as viewed by the adult. mastering a skill is important as a child gets older but it shouldn’t be a goal during toddlerdom! have you happened upon the book “say what you see” yet? it’s big at our school and a super short read. I think you’d enjoy. xo

  22. Oh… now I know why the only compliment I remember from my childhood is my grandmother telling me “I am fascinated watching you creating things” – I was about 8 or 9 and was putting together some kind of towel-doll just for fun. It is one of the clearest memories I have of me and my grandma.

  23. I don’t hjave a child but I think this is so applicable to how to talk to anyone you love! Boyfriend for sure! Thanks a million for sharing.


  24. Reading those words gave me chills! Thank you for sharing Jo!
    P.S. your little man is the cutest!

  25. Reading those words gave me chills! Thank you for sharing Jo!
    P.S. your little man is the cutest!

  26. Reading your posts is always inspiring :)

  27. as in… my face lights up when they walk in the room – half a thought captured there!

  28. Oh that is awesome, I’ll use that – words are powerful aren’t they. I also heard an author on Oprah once say, what does your face tell your child when they walk in the room? I have used that many times and it envokes the same sort of response… their little face lights up too. x

  29. This piece of writing gives a lot of exceptional information and inspiration. Really a remarkable blog post I had seen Porcelain Veneers

  30. Thank you for this post! I’m going to try this with my french little boys!

  31. This is totally in line with the most profound parenting book I’ve read: Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn. He talks about praise and punishment not only potentially harming the parent-child relationship but also how a child’s goals and passions become completely externally motivated.

  32. I think this is so true. I played tennis professionally and I know I loved it when people said to me “its such a pleasure to watch you play” instead of “you’re really good”. My parents werent very aware of such things and I had a total tennis dad so that’s a whole other ball of wax. I read this same thing somewhere recently adn I’ve been saying it to my daughter who swims, dances and plays the violin. And just like Toby, she beams. You can see the happiness rise inside them right? Great great tip to share if you ask me.

  33. What a thought-provoking thought for a Monday – it captures the very essence of parenting – to be a safe, steady and reassuring constant for our kids to fall back on and feel our unconditional and unqualified love and support. ‘I love to watch you just be’ whatever that is – no pressure, no expectations. Beautiful writing and photos as always.

    Anna x

  34. I am a teacher, and this is amazing teaching advice as well- so often we see kids learn, and when they’re on the right track, we want to praise them to keep them motivated, but instead we say things such as, “That was fabulous, but this is how it could be even better!” Backwards compliment. I’m definitely going to incorporate this into my classroom environment!

  35. Yeesh! Whatever happened to constructive criticism? Children don’t shatter if you tell them the truth. My kids are awesome but when my son wants to practice the clarinet I send him to school to use the practice rooms because I just can’t take the scales. I don’t love to hear the clarinet. He knows I love him. Just like I didn’t tell anyone that I loved watching them stand in the outfield in painfully boring baseball games. I was not sad when my kids decided that baseball is not their sport. I’ll tell them that maybe they should practice their serve because IT WILL HELP THEM WIN at their tennis tournament. They want to win. The tears from the backseat when one of your children double faults five times in one match isn’t a time for you to say “I love watching you play” it is a time to say “I’m sorry you had such a crappy afternoon. Lets go work on your serve tomorrow so that doesn’t happen again. Now, why don’t we go get a root beer float and go to the bookstore?”

    • Telling your child, “I love watching you [fill in the blank]” isn’t about whether or not your child is a wunderkind at said activity. And I think if you took some time to think about the fact that life is not always about winning you would be able to separate saying something meaningful to your kids without it being dependent only on their achievements. (And for the record this is coming from a recovering perfectionist who is in process of learning this same lesson before I give my son the idea that I am only impressed with him when he’s winning.) -Veralynn

  36. Mk says...

    This is my favorite post yet. Thank you. I hope lots of kids hear this tonight. Xoxo

  37. You should read the book, “Mindset,” by Carol Dweck.

  38. This is awesome advice and I am really, really glad you shared this!

  39. I remember one time when I was running cross country in high school, my mom got teary-eyed after I finished my race. I did not do particularly well, and I asked why she was acting like that, and she said those exact words: “I just love watching you run!” It made me feel so special! I still remember it almost 9 years later!

  40. I am truly honored to have my blog post mentioned here! It is truly inspiring to see how these 6 words have taken off and are being used in such loving ways! I am truly grateful that you shared them!

    Rachel Macy Stafford

  41. I love this!

  42. SO TRUE! what a great post, Joanna. Thanks for sharing.

  43. Great philosophy to share. I’m going to have to keep this in mind in the back of my head.

  44. This is so lovely. I will absolutely adopt this into my life, thank you for sharing sweet Joanna!

  45. Love this! Thanks for sharing. I’ve been thinking about praise and encouragement a lot lately. I feel like it’s so easy to use praise to manipulate kids into doing what we want instead of accepting them as they are. This a thoughtful way to speak positively with your children.

  46. JB says...

    This sounds like a really good way of phrasing praise. When I was small (and still, actually) I was very shy and self-conscious. I was over sensitive of criticism but I also cringed with praise because it made me feel on the spot and pressured in some way. I felt I had to be perfect all the time. This way of phrasing it seems much more in tune with acceptance rather than striving for perfection all the time.

  47. There’s another post I read recently that goes well with this. It was about what to say instead of “good job”. I love to see my daughters’ faces when I say, “I love listening to you sing.”
    Is it just me or is Toby starting look like a tiny Alex?

  48. As an early childhood teacher in New York, I’m saddened to hear you say you think teachers pressure children. While I don’t speak for every teacher, all of the ones I know are not about pressure at all. We want to work as a team with parents to support and care for young children. In my experience (also saddening), many NYC parents are pressuring their children well beyond age appropriate expectations. You certainly do not seem to be one of those, simply because you really do love to watch your son play. Keep supporting your boys by loving to watch them play and sing and dance and love.

  49. I l definitely want to try this out with my husband, I hate pretending something is great when it isn’t but there is also no point to use mean honesty. I love that concept Johana !

  50. Definately worth sharing!

    Thank-you, Joanna:-)

  51. this post made me a little teary eyed! Such a simple thing we can do for the ones we love in our lives. Thanks for sharing this!

  52. this reminds me of a survey given to children asking them whom would you rather have come to your games/performances your parents or grandparents? the response was grandparents…because “they love to watch me play” as opposed to their parents who often would criticize their performances or games afterwards. as a parent, this crushed my heart and i made it goal for myself never to do this again. “i love to watch you play” is the perfect response!

  53. Solid and happy advice; love it so much. Plus, I think adults could benefit from hearing this, too:)

  54. RR says...

    Sorry but for me, the pictures of your child playing with the guitar in only a diaper are not internet appropriate, while very cute. These pictures may prevent future anonymity for him, free of bias.

    On the other hand, I really liked the message of this post.

    It’s beyond clear that you are a loving mother. I do think that we all need to think about what our children’s online presence might mean for their future, particularly when they are below the age of consent themselves.

  55. OMG, I read the same article on Huffington post and I think it’s awesome! I have been using this technique for the past 2 weeks with my 5 year old son who’s currently enrolled in Karate and swim lessons. Not instead of saying “great job” or “nice work”, I’ll say “I love watching you….”. My husband and I were just discussing this yesterday…it’s a great lesson for parents for sure!

    Thanks, Lisa

  56. What a wonderful suggestion! Thanks, Joanna.

  57. This post hit home! My daughter is in dance and I love to watch her in dance class. She hates it and always makes a face or waves me away when she sees me in the window. After class I always tell her how great I think she is, etc. and she rolls her eyes at me. What I need to tell her is “I love to watch you dance”. Because that is the honest truth. I honestly love, more than anything, to watch her dance. I watch her and wonder at how beautifully she has grown up and how happy she looks when she is in dance class and it makes my hear ache with love.

  58. I’m using this on everyone haha, except my best friend, she reads this blog.

  59. Fantastic advice, thank you!

  60. So funny – I read this article too and started saying it to my 3-month old son this past weekend (never too early, right?). I was a really competitive athlete as a child (through college) and I have some very negative memories of my parents involvement in my athletics. I love this philosophy and figure it’s worth a shot to instill a healthier take on, well, everything in my son’s life.

  61. This is an oldie but goodie! A year ago I sent this article to all the parents on my daughters soccer team. It is such a reminder that we are the parents, and we are not trying to live out our own athletic failures through our children. This phrase is something that works on all ages as well, that is why it is sooo good. xo tia

  62. So funny – I read this article too and started saying it to my 3-month old son this past weekend (never too early, right?). I was a really competitive athlete as a child (through college) and I have some very negative memories of my parents involvement in my athletics. I love this philosophy and figure it’s worth a shot to instill a healthier take on, well, everything in my son’s life.

  63. My boys’ soccer coaches just sent out a link to an article about that survey, so it’s been on my mind, too. I’ve been trying it with my boys and I think it really is wonderful…and you know what else? It feels really good to say it and to realize that it really is true, it is a great feeling to watch your child playing and having fun and just to enjoy it for what it is.

  64. My boys’ soccer coaches just sent out a link to an article about that survey, so it’s been on my mind, too. I’ve been trying it with my boys and I think it really is wonderful…and you know what else? It feels really good to say it and to realize that it really is true, it is a great feeling to watch your child playing and having fun and just to enjoy it for what it is.

  65. That is such a lovely thought. I always encourage my son to do whatever he likes… but the idea of taking off the pressure never crossed my mind. Thanks for sharing !

  66. I really love that idea Joanna and I love how you applied it right away, I’m going to do that too, whenever I get the chance!
    Is it me or is Toby not wearing a diaper in the photo when he’s swinging like a little monkey? Way to go big boy!

  67. it’s so true! seeing someone you love do something they love, makes you love to watch them do what they love, and telling them that you love seeing them do what they love, makes both sides feel warm and fuzzy inside. (well that was enough use of “love” in one sentence wasn’t it)…. my boyfriend does this ridiculous dance, usually when he wants to get a smile out of me, and I always tell him I love watching do that ridiculous dance :)

  68. Yes! This is such a good thing to say…i love that it makes more of an observation rather than a judgement.

  69. Pyscho-babble? Nope. It’s a sweet thing to say. I also try to not always mention myself when talking to someone else. For example, if your friend is a great dresser, try not to say I love your outfit. Say, You look beautiful!

  70. I read that too and have been trying it out on my clients (I work in Mental Health with kids). It is so interesting to watch the subtle and not so subtle differences in their responses!

  71. I think this would be good to remember for all relationships. Just was telling hubby how “I love to watch you play guitar” and he smiled a big smile.

  72. I love that idea! Heck, I’m an adult and my boyfriend said something similar to me the other night, and it feels great.

    However, now I’m going to have “Down By The Bay” stuck in my head all day! (Have you ever seen a whale with a polkadot tail?)

    • It’s like you read my mind! Stuck in my head, too… “Where the watermelons grooooow…”

  73. Love this, how a simple change in your language can make all the difference! As a new mom, I’m much more cognizant of my behavior and how my son will perceive the world.

  74. i really like this. i am not a mother but am going to try it out on everyone i know! i know that if someone said that to me, i would remember it. i do remember when i first started dating my husband, he would always say things like “i like that you go barefoot all the time” or “i like that you ..” and it had the same effect!
    —michaela | two handfuls of

  75. That is such a wonderful phrase. I never would’ve realized it, but you’re right-it sounds unconditional. I think adults would like to hear it as much as children would. It’s true, sometimes praise can feel more like pressure, and phrasing a compliment in this way sounds really sweet and loving.

  76. yes!!! This is so right on — shows connectness and leaves behind the judgment. Love it. I’m going to use it today with my 3 year old and every day from now on. I can already think of some nice ways to incorporate the same kind of thing for my husband and other adults.

  77. I am not a Mom but love this and will definitely keep it in mind while talking to my friends and loved ones!

  78. This concept reminds a lot of an article I read in NYMag awhile back on praising kids and how it can cause already “smart” kids to under perform due to the exact pressure you are referring to:

    I didn’t have kids when I originally read it, but it stuck with me and now that I have kids of my own, it makes a lot of sense. -crystal

  79. This is such great advice. I love the “take the pressure off” aspect, but often wonder what I should say. This is perfect.

  80. this is wonderful- i can’t wait to try it tonight.

  81. Wow – need to start using this phrase more often. Great advice!

  82. Very true!! I remember this being something my parents did well, and I try to repeat it with my kids.

  83. I wish somebody (as in “my parents”, for instance) said these words to me when I was younger. Probably this would have built more self confidence. I’ll keep this in mind when sharing good times with my children. Thanks for this post !

  84. This is truly wonderful – for everyone, not just children! I’m going to keep this in mind…and I will definitely send this to my son and daughter-in-law. My grandchildren (8 and 5) would surely benefit from this approach.

    This also brough back memories of some books and classes I took in college when I was majoring in education. Very, very important to be aware of how we speak to children – some of what I learned I used actively when I was raising my children. It was very different than the way I was spoken to growing up.

  85. What a perfect phrase! It encompasses the fact that you are present, showing that you care and happy to be a part of their lives. It is free from judgement and praise. The child’s own journey of self discovery is important and by using this phrase we can assist them to feel confident enough to express themselves and enjoy life. ^_^

  86. This is so beautiful and poignant and true. And I love that kids still sing Down By the Bay…it’s a true classic. Reading your parenting thoughts makes me excited to have little ones of my own one day. Thanks for all your writing and insight and way of seeing the world – it brightens mine. :)

  87. I am so glad I read this post and I will definitely be saying these words way more often. Love love love this!

  88. This is really great advice. I don’t have kids, but just in general. Thanks for sharing and happy Monday!

  89. Gosh, I think that is truly lovely advice.

  90. Yes! My mom would tell me she loved to hear me play the violin when I was a kid/teen and occasionally she’ll still mention how she misses hearing me. It definitely made me feel more confident to experiment and have fun, instead of being a perfect performer.

    I am definitely going to say this to my husband and friends now that I’m aware of it.

  91. Great advice! Instead of just constantly doling out the “Good job!”s, we need to be more thoughtful in the way we praise our children :)

  92. I read that blog post and it was so beautiful (and felt like a forehead smack it made so much sense!), I think the idea is important for adults too…how nice it would be if you partner/spouse said I love to chat to you/hear you sing/watch you play with the kids etc more often. I am definitely going to make a point to watch how I compliment!

  93. I love this! Brilliant actually. I never realized how praise can feel like pressure, but it really can!
    I’ve converted!

  94. I loved this post – it almost made me cry :) Thank You for sharing this! Hope I will remember it for when I have kids one day. Incredible how those small words can make such a big difference.

    Since you talk about your Friday night dinner, could you make a post one day about what you guys eat – usually? Like…do you cook a lot or rather go out for dinner? As a food blogger from germany I would be so interested in how a family eats in New York :)

    • Re: remembering it for when you have kids – pin it! I have a pinterest board for things “to live by,” comes in handy for words of wisdom like these :)

  95. Oh I love this so much! I am going to start saying this now.

  96. Thank you for sharing this. Such a great piece of advice. I think this would make my boys very proud of whatever they are doing at that moment. They’re six and two and definitely crave having fun but also parents’ approval and affection. I will try to use this often!

  97. I love it, I will do it today and forever. And maybe I’ll even say it to myself :)

  98. jm says...

    This is such a valuable tip. I think parents often inadvertantly put a lot of pressure on their kids. Saying that you love watching them dance (or play the guitar or whatever) seems to indicate that you just take joy in them!

  99. That is so great. Love reading tidbits like that!

  100. 100% agree! Toby’s adorable!!! But he needs to get rid of that diapper (speaking of taking pressure off… ups!) :-D

  101. Joanna, I just love to read your blog! Thank you so much for sharing. :)

  102. Joanna, i love your blog because it makes me want to be a better person and encourages me to improve. Thank you so much!

    Lots of love from Spain!

  103. I’ll do this with my family and friends too! This is brilliant, Joanna!

  104. Reminds me of Haim Ginott’s thoughts on praise. Using descriptive praise is much more meaningful to children, rather than evaluative praise (i.e. You are so smart!)

  105. This resonates a lot. Really interesting post, Joanna! I think you are right about it taking the pressure off.

  106. Such a great idea! I had to think as to whether or not I say that to my daughter, and I think I do… but I think the last thing I said in that format was, “I love watching you eat”… but it’s true! She’s so deliberate with the way she picks up pieces of food (she’s 10 months old), and the way she chews them and makes cute faces… I love it, I love watching her learn, I love watching her play… I’m going to try to make a point of saying this to her more. :)

  107. Love this philosophy!!!! Thanks for sharing! :)

  108. So cute! I can’t wait to show my babies how to play the guitar. Soon :) You have a lovely family. xoxo