Great for All Ages, Mental Contrasting, Parent Tips, Special Phrase Language, The Happy Student Podcast

#108 Be Strategic

“Be careful.” What a common phrase parents say. Your kid is climbing a tree – “Be careful!” Your kid is carrying hot liquid – “Be careful!” Your kid is going for a drive – my parents still tell me to “Be careful!” And that’s fine. But it’s also not great. It’s not that helpful. What does “careful” mean to a kid? Maybe a good alternative to careful is to be slow – to take your time because what your doing requires concentration and thought and you don’t want to rush it because you could get hurt. But being slow and careful is boring. And kids hate boring. So I’ve got an alternative, let’s start telling our kids to “Be strategic.”




It’s not that you shouldn’t tell your kids to “Be careful.” You totally can and should. It’s that there are times when “Be strategic” also works and I think it is often clearer and it starts to get kids to think about being strategic, which they don’t necessarily get when they are told to “Be careful.”

“Be careful” means to be cautious. It means to be slow. It means to take your time. It means to be aware of what is going on. Implied in “Be careful” is to think about what you are doing and plan it out. But with kids we need to be super explicit. Telling kids to “be careful” and expecting them to plan out their course of action in response to that piece of advice is unlikely to get the desired outcome.

Meanwhile, “Be strategic” is a little more proactive. It’s a little clearer what it means to be strategic. To be strategic is to have a strategy – to have a plan. So when your kid is looking down the stairs they don’t know how to actually descend and you say “Be strategic” the idea is that they will start to learn to pause before they just nose dive downward.

Being cautious and careful is slow and boring. Being strategic is cool.

There’s this military saying, “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.” And I’ve started saying it to myself as another alternative to “Be strategic”.

The point is, “Be strategic” is cool and it’s still slow. But even though it’s slow, it’s fast. And that’s cool. And your kids will respond to that. So try to start replacing some of your “Be careful” warnings with “Be strategic” and see what happens. 


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Definitions, Easy Action Items, Great for All Ages, Special Phrase Language, Stress Management

The Absence of a Negative is Not a Good


The Goods:

  • One good thing you did. (“I shared my cookies with my brother.”)
  • One good thing someone else did. (“Cindy walked with me to the nurse’s office when I wasn’t feeling well.”)
  • One good thing. (“We played dodgeball in gym class today.”)

Going through The Goods once a day (with your kids) helps you (and your kids) maintain a positive outlook on life. It helps us consistently search out the good things in our lives instead of the negatives.

Happy family having fun on floor of in living room at home, laug

But sometimes what your child may think is a “Good” is actually not: the absence of a negative is not a good. Why? Because it keeps the focus on the negative and not the good. For instance:

  • “I don’t have homework tonight” is not a suitable “Good”.Classroom Under Control
  • “School was canceled today for a snow day!”
  • “My English teacher was sick so we had a substitute and did not do anything in class today!”
  • “My math teacher didn’t call on me.”
  • “I didn’t have a pop quiz like I thought I would.”
  • “I didn’t punch my sister.”

Goods look more like:

  • “I have a lot of free time tonight! I’m going to read a book” (in our dreams…).
  • “We had a snow day and I played outside with my siblings!”Kids Playing In The Snow
  • “And I made a snowman!”Funny kid boy in colorful clothes making a snowman, outdoors
  • “I did well on my math quiz!”
  • “I dominated my pop quiz.”
  • “My sister and I played cards when we got home from school and had a really fun time.”

Good luck finding The Real Goods!

Executive Functions Training, High School, Middle School, Special Phrase Language, Stress Management

Big Deal, Little Deal

Big Deal, Little Deal

When our students, children, and selves start stressing over a problem from which they (we) cannot be distracted, psychologist Peg Dawson recommends asking, “Is this a big deal, or a little deal?” If the response is, “A big deal”, press a bit further. “Is this a big deal or a little deal that feels like a big deal?”

Great. This asks the person to take some perspective on the situation and reassess his cognitive, emotional, and behavioral response. But then what? It still feels like a big deal!

  1. Write down or say aloud the situation that caused the current state of stress. (I prefer writing it down because writing takes longer, which forces you to slow down. When you say it out loud, you can ramp up your speed and maintain a higher anxiety level).
  2. Forgive yourself. Take a moment to remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes and that you will do better next time.
  3. Try to fix the mistake as best you can now. Talk to your teacher about what you missed in your paper so that next time you will know what to be sure to include. Perhaps see if you could rewrite or edit the paper for extra credit (or just for good will). Apologize to a friend for having started a fight.
  4. Make a concrete plan for next time so that you know you actually will do better next time. Without a concrete plan, you may start worrying that you will forget what you learned this time around and the stress may resurface. Therefore, next time you will cite three sources in your paper and have better transition sentences.Illustration of Twin Boys Fighting Over a Stuffed Toy Or, to avoid a future fight, when your friend notices an argument brewing, see if she might be willing to ask you, “Is this what you really want or mean?” Or perhaps come up with a code word that means “This is getting out of hand. I do not want to have a fight about this. Do you?” This will give you a chance to reflect on whether or not the situation warrants an argument.
  5. With that concrete plan, create visible reminders for yourself in the future. For instance, start a new Microsoft Word document titled “Next Essay for English Class” in the appropriate file. Use bullet points to lay out the feedback you received from your teacher. Write examples of good transition sentences. (If your teacher did not give you examples, ask him to help you understand what would have been a better transition sentence based on the ones in your most recent paper). When you start to write the next paper, write it in this document.

Slow down. Assess the situation. Forgive yourself. Plan for next time. Help make sure the plan works!


Dawson, M. & R. Guare. (2015). Smart but scattered: Helping teens strengthen executive skills to reach their full potential. The Science of Character: Using Brain Science to Raise Student Self-Regulation, Resilience and Respect. Boston: Learning and the Brain.


Easy Action Items, Great for All Ages, Parent-Child Communication, Special Phrase Language

It’s Not Okay

It's Not Okay

Habits – we all have them and mostly (hopefully) they help us to get through our day and preserve our mental power for the more difficult activities. For instance, when someone sneezes, I say “Bless you” without thinking about it. If I thought about whether or not to say “Bless you” every time someone sneezed, I would certainly be wasting my time.

Muddy BoyWhen I make a mistake, I automatically say “I’m sorry.” And when someone apologizes to me, I say, “It’s okay.” But sometimes, it’s not actually okay and saying that it is sends the wrong message.

Children make mistakes on a daily basis. They hit other children. They bite. They tell lies. They exclude other children during recess. They fling their toys around and accidentally (or maybe not accidentally) hurt others in the process. Sometimes there is genuine remorse when an action had an unintended, hurtful consequence. Sometimes kids know what they are doing is “not okay” and as soon as an adult notices, they immediately say, “Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!” (I’m not saying these kids are malicious, but rather that some kids need to push boundaries and figure out why those actions are not okay). If the automatic response to these apologies is “It’s okay”, it inadvertently teaches children that it is okay to hurt others as long as you say you are sorry afterward, when that is obviously not what we really mean.

lovely dog beg pardonTo clarify our message, Sheila Belden, a veteran Kindergarten and Preschool teacher at Greenwich Country Day School, recommends saying, “I accept your apology” instead. By saying “I accept your apology”, you recognize that this other person did not mean to hurt you, you forgive and move on, but you do not condone the behavior.

Try making “I accept your apology” a new habit and let us know if and how a change in language affects behavior!

For Teachers Especially, Special Phrase Language

You Shouldn’t Should Yourself

I am a perfectionist. I want to be nice to everyone. I want to do the right thing all the time. I want to have a clean house (I should clean my room; I should not be so messy; my family should clean their rooms…). But the rooms in my home are not always clean. I do not always know how I should act or what I should do. And unfortunately, I am not always nice to everyone.

I try to learn from my mistakes. So when I snap at someone or I botch an introduction at a networking event, I think about what I should have done. I should not have been so mean to that lady even though I had just had the worst morning. I should have remembered that man’s name. I should have smiled more and asked more questions. By “shoulding” myself, I am trying to teach myself how to be better next time. It is a way to improve. However, I am also putting myself down. I am saying, you did not do a good enough job. You need to be better. You are not good enough. It is good to push yourself, but you also have to protect your self-esteem. Otherwise, you can discourage yourself from trying again next time.

That is what Louise Hay thinks too. (To focus on the “should” part of her talk, start watching around 15 minutes, 45 seconds).

Louise says, “Every time you say should, you’re making yourself wrong. So take that one out [of your vocabulary] completely”.

Psychologist Dr. Noa Kageyama agrees. He says “shoulds” make us focus on the problem instead of the solution and in turn are discouraging. “Not only will [this] self-inflicted guilt trip lead to balking, [but] dwelling on your shortcomings can quickly spiral out of control and result in negative and counter-productive self-talk” (emphasis added) (Desmarais, 2014). 

And we do this to our children too.

In seventh grade, I had a ton of history homework, especially reading, which as I have mentioned took me an extra long time. So, history homework took up most of my evenings. In class one day, my teacher said, “This reading should take about thirty minutes. If you are taking more than thirty minutes to read, stop and go on to the next assignment.”

Well, that sounded nice while I was sitting in class (Yes! I can stop spending so much time on reading). So, I read my thirty minutes and moved on. However, because I had not finished my reading, I did not know the information in class, and could not respond to questions. My grades suffered. Therefore, I learned that just because the reading should only take thirty minutes, even if it took longer, I still had to read it all. Then I thought to myself, Why is it taking me so much longer than it should be taking me? All of a sudden, I was not good enough. Before I had been working hard and getting it done and I was happy with my grades, but after her comment, I learned that something was wrong with what I was doing.

I should have been a faster reader. What was worse, no solution was given. I just should have been better…. 😰

That was wrong. I was doing a great job. I was working hard and that was good for me. I had been proud of myself, but no longer was.

To avoid that judgment, try reframing the way you talk. Maybe my teacher could have said, “I have assigned what I think is about thirty minutes worth of reading for homework. Let me know if I have miscalculated and if it takes you longer.” That sentence opens up an opportunity to find the real reasons behind why the reading took too long. Maybe everyone in the class was overwhelmed and it was not just me. Maybe it was me and I needed to learn some tricks. It provides the ability to develop solutions and leaves out the judgement inherent in “should”. It also helps build trust and relationships between teachers and students. 

My self-talk can improve. When I forget someone’s name, instead of thinking, I should remember his name! I am the worst at networking. How embarrassing. Instead I could think, Okay, his name is Jack. I am going to write that down. I am going to look him up on LinkedIn and I am going to remember him next time. There is no judgment there. And everyone forgets names. No one is perfect. So it does not make sense to attribute a negative judgment to not being perfect. 

So take “should” out of your self-talk and the way you talk to your kids. 

Now, I will be shocked and impressed if you can actually rid your vocabulary of “should”. One tip is to try to say “choose” instead of “should”. I choose to keep practicing networking. But, I still should myself. So, if you cannot get rid of “should” entirely, at least be sure to provide a solution: I should be able to read faster. I am going to follow my advice from Better, Faster Reading. Try to remove judgment. It is really hard to dissociate judgment from should though, so a good goal is to minimize your “should” language – to your kids and to yourself.

Additional References:

Canfield, J. (1990). Improving students’ self-esteem. Educational Leadership. 48.1: 48-50

Germer, C. (2009). The mindful path to self-compassion: Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions. New York: Guilford Press.

Neff, K. & L. M. Lamb (2009). Self-CompassionHandbook of Individual Differences in social behavior: 561-573