If You Say It, Mean It

If You Say It, Mean It


As child therapists, we at Hartstein Psychological Services are very well-versed in the ins and outs and ups and downs of behavioral parenting techniques. Some of them are quite simple and parents only need a few reminders and pointers here and there: praise your child for positive behaviors, spend individual time with them, etc. Some of them are more complex: what is your plan, exactly, for when your child refuses to go to time out?! And yet even with all of the very effective behavioral parenting skills that are known and recommended, I would say that there is probably one parenting tip/reminder that I hold above all others and that informs many of the parenting techniques we recommend: if you say it, mean it.

One of the most common complaints that parents bring to us is some variation of “my child doesn’t listen to me” (the first time, without me yelling, without dawdling or whining or putting up a fight and so on). Inevitably if I ask enough questions of a family, or do some observation, this behavior of not doing things when asked or told is usually due to the fact that the child doesn’t have to do it (the first time, at all, etc.). Let me give an example to illustrate this point: a parent is busy on their phone and in between reading emails, tells their child , who is playing with their favorite toy, to go brush their teeth. Said parent then gets back on their phone to read an article. Several minutes pass and the parent realizes that they never heard the child turn the water on in the bathroom. The parent, now more annoyed, tells them again to brush their teeth and then writes some emails. Several more minutes pass and the child still has not brushed their teeth. This parent, now very frustrated, puts the phone down moves toward the child and yells at the child to go brush their teeth and follows them into the bathroom. The parent is incredibly, and understandably, frustrated. However, let’s try to understand the point of view of the child. The child was doing something enjoyable and they got to do it for an extra 10 minutes or so. They likely have been in this situation with their parent before and thus know they can get away with continuing with their preferred activity for some time after a directive is given before a parent will be serious about looking for compliance. The parent said “go brush your teeth,” but since they did not follow through or monitor compliance they didn’t really “mean it.”

This idea of “if you say it, mean it” underlies many parenting practices. Related to the example given above, if you tell your child to do something, then you should be monitoring to make sure that they follow through. (And while we’re operating in a perfect world, the parent should also then praise the child once they comply with the direction.) If your child learns over time that you are not serious about your command until you’ve given it several times, are yelling, etc. they will learn not to follow directions the first time.  Mean it the very first time you say it by following through all the way.

This idea of “if you say it, mean it” also relates to rules, routine and schedules. Don’t set a household routine if you don’t plan to follow through with it. If several days of the week your child is allowed to break the rule of no screens before homework is done, they are not likely to follow the rule on other days when you as a parent would like for it to be obeyed. The same idea applies to routines, such as spending quality time with your child. If you say that Sunday morning is going to be a special breakfast for just the two of you and then on Sunday morning you realize you need to run errands and don’t have time for a leisurely breakfast, your child learns to doubt your word.

We can also apply this “say it, mean it” principle to rewards systems. Behavior charts can be a rather complex intervention. However, let’s say, in a simplified way, that you have agreed to take your child to the movies if they earn 12 points through behaviors such as making their bed and brushing their teeth. If you put this behavior chart into place with your child, it is not your responsibility to check every day for bed made and teeth brushed, to award points for those behaviors and to then take your child to the movies once they reach 12 points.

I can name a number of other examples of how to apply this principle to various parenting techniques (if you take away computer time as a consequence for hitting their sister, then there certainly should be no computer time) at the end of the day the idea is that your children should be very clear that your word carries significant weight. If you have the thought of telling your child to clean up all of their toys before dinner, but know that you are otherwise occupied and can’t monitor this behavior, and in particular if you have a child that is prone towards defiance, in my opinion it is better not to say anything than to give an empty command.

Children will try to test limits in all sorts of clever ways. If you are as consistent as possible in following through on what you say and start, they will learn quickly that there is no point in testing you excessively because they know what to expect from you: if you say it, you mean it.

-CCC                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Licensed Clinical Psychologist