How to talk to nurture your child’s self esteem

As a writer, words mean the world to me, and I try to be aware of the kind of words I use with my children.

Recently, I’ve picked up some communication skills through the workshops I’ve been organising, as well as through this book How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk (affiliate link). Here are 6 tips I’d like to share with you.


1. Watch out for subtle blaming words

Instead of “what did you do,” which already assumes that the child has done something bad, try “what happened,” which is neutral and expresses concern, and allows the child the space and time to give his side of the story.

2. Don’t say “You’ll never learn!”

First of all this statement cannot be true – humans were born and created to learn, and yes some things are learnt the hard way, but still at least we do learn at some point. When a child hears this phrase frequently used on him, it will harm his sense of self worth, and hinder him from developing a growth mindset.

3. Watch your tone of voice when you’re coaching.

Are you getting agitated and losing your patience by the minute? Take a break and switch to a different activity – come back to it when you feel you’re ready to tackle it with your child.

Here I’d like to share my experience learning piano with my son. We enrolled in MYC a year ago and I found it’s been quite a fun way for younger kids to learn music. It’s parent-accompanied and the parent who accompanies the child is also expected to practise with him at home. There were a few sessions where I got upset with him, and it showed in the way I was impatient with him (both in class and at home) while practising. During that period, his interest in attending classes started to wane. And I too, felt like throwing in the towel.

Thankfully, I gradually learnt to keep my cool during practice, reminding myself that he’s still a child, and that improvement sometimes takes longer to show up. Since this change happened within me, he’s started playing the piano better, and enjoying it a whole lot more, too. 🙂

4. Don’t say “This is easy.”

It puts pressure on a child and when the child does it, he’s able to do something easy. And when he doesn’t, he can’t even do something so simple. It’s lose-lose.

We used to think that when we told a child something was “easy,” we were encouraging him. We realise now that by saying, “Try it, it’s easy” we do him no favor. If he succeeds in doing something “easy,” he feels he hasn’t accomplished much. If he fails, then he’s failed to do something simple.

If on the other hand we say, “It’s not easy” or “That can be hard,” he gives himself another set of messages. If he succeeds, he can experience the pride of having done something difficult. If he fails, he can at least have the satisfaction of knowing that his task was a tough one. – Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

5. Describe what you see he has done.

“You managed to fix the tiles into a dinosaur structure – and all by yourself too!” Notice I did not use the word “good job” or “amazing” or “you’re so clever” anywhere. (Now I know it’s hard to erase these words completely from our vocabulary because it’s quite entrenched in our culture to say such things. My guess is that most of us grew up hearing these words! It won’t be an overnight thing but change begins from awareness. Catch yourself saying the wrong things, tweak it intentionally, and celebrate small steps.)

6. Acknowledge effort

If he got a spelling word wrong, try not to focus on the lost mark. You can, however, acknowledge the mistake and make sure he knows where he went wrong. But also affirm him for mastering the other nine words, and for making an effort. Say something like “You managed to get 9 out of 10 words correct! I can see that it’s because you put in the effort to learn and practise.

But what if the child got nine words wrong? Allow him to learn at his pace and work together to understand what went wrong. Maybe it’s a particular letter / word type he struggles with. Whatever it is, don’t condemn him to a life of doom – “If you don’t get full marks next time, you’re going to end up sweeping the streets!!”

Acknowledge his feelings and give him a chance to problem-solve. A simple “I see that you’re feeling disappointed at the spelling test. How do you think we can help you improve?” Allow him to come up with his own ideas and don’t throw or reject any of them. After you have a list, decide together which idea is most workable and focus on doing that.

Even as adults, we need room to grow and we thrive when we are entrusted with responsibilities and are trusted to do the job well. Do you agree?

Raising children is messy business

Raising children is messy business.

The house is messy.

My thoughts are messy.

Getting everyone organised and dressed and out of the house can be a tall order on some days.

Resolving sibling fights gives me a headache (and sometimes a sore throat because I have to yell louder than they do.)

Trying to keep track of what I hope to accomplish and teach each one of them (at their varying stages of development) can induce a terrible migraine.

Parenthood is messy business, almost like running a farm. Amidst the poop, the spills, and the drools, there is also a little boy running amok and trying to clobber his brother with a plastic hammer.

It can be tiring, and madly frustrating.

But it can also be unpredictably fun, in a side-splitting kind of way.

I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much as I do now. I don’t think I’ve ever thought to myself “how incredibly blessed I am” as often as I do now too. Granted, this happens only after the kids are in bed and are unable to argue with me or drive me up the wall. (Which is also why I like to gaze at them sleeping – it’s a healing process for my tired soul.)

My life is filled to overflowing, if only I would pause long enough to see it.

In the bible there is a proverb that goes, “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.” In context, it’s saying that you can enjoy a clean and tidy farm if you have no oxen or animals inside. But without animals to plough and work the field, it will be hard to enjoy a good harvest.

Any worthy pursuit in life requires hard work and sacrifice. And you can be sure that raising the next generation is a worthy pursuit.

It may look like just one big mayhem at the moment, but I choose to believe there is a purpose to the mess.

With each messy fight, they are learning about how to use and curb their strength. How to socialise with another human being.

With each messy fall, they learn how to pick themselves up, and how to receive comfort, only to be able to give that same comfort to others who fall too.

With each messy meltdown, they learn how much it means to be accepted and loved even when they lose control.

I often wonder wistfully at that career I’ve left behind. At all my ex colleagues who have progressed up the ladder. At the possibilities that could have been. But I realise that only distracts me from loving and serving my family at this very moment. That only subtracts from my already limited energy. Thinking about all those what could have beens disheartens me.

So I switch gears.

I think about the time I have on my hands now. I think about every new day as a gift. I think about the possibilities and ways to invest in building the right foundation in my kids. And hopefully, by some grace that is larger than mine, I’ll be able to wake up to brighter and more peaceful mornings in the years to come.

Parenting is like working the field. Without the messiness of falls, tears, failures, and difficulties, there can be no beauty, strength, and resilience in later life. Without the sowing of today, there can be no fruit tomorrow.

Even on a teary and messy today, may we stop and give thanks for our little ones. And see them for who they really are – little blessings from God given to us to hug, cherish, and be stewards over for a time.

In spite of the mess they bring to our lives. Or perhaps because of it.


PS. A Pancake Princess just wrote about how we can’t put a price tag on motherhood, and how our sacrifices can look so small in the larger scheme of things. Hop over to be reminded to count our joys.

For days when you feel like you’re fighting a losing battle

It was a horrible Sunday, one of those where everything just seems to fall apart. We thought Sunday school was starting for Josh, but it turned out to be the following Sunday. He turned out to be ultra-sticky (thankfully to the father, who erm… looked desperately like he needed extra-strong coffee by the end of the 2-hour service.)

He had to be carried out kicking and crying, mostly because he was hungry and cranky. This boy is hungry ALL the time, and we only brought out 1 snack, which he polished up within 10 minutes of entering the door. (Blame it on the blur of the morning for not anticipating this and packing more.)

Then, when we picked up JJ from Sunday school, he threw a fit and suddenly wanted to go into the cry-room (where we had just escaped from.)

Going back into the cry-room, from Sunday school, would mean 50 steps back in the wrong direction. And also a new precedent which I wasn’t going to start. So no, I’m sorry, young man, we are calling a car and getting us all back home for lunch.

We all finally managed to have lunch, and Josh naturally wolfed his down, and then clamoured for more.

Then, he napped, and I felt like I needed to lie down too. (The hubby had already KO-ed by then.)

In the afternoon, there was another incident, this time with Vera.

The hubby and I had planned to bring the kids out cycling / scooting followed by dinner at the hawker centre. But Vera promptly turned down our proposal, saying that it was hot and she didn’t want to sweat. (Lately she’s morphed into a home-body who prefers to snuggle on the sofa with one of her books.)

On a normal day, we’d be fine to let her have her way. But on this particular afternoon, there wasn’t anyone else at home and we couldn’t just leave her alone. So I explained the whole situation and gave her a couple of options to choose from (she could scoot / cycle / walk / jog), hoping to change her mind. We were all dressed, and the two boys were rearing to go. So…FOR THE SAKE OF THE WHOLE FAMILY, PLEASEEEE.

She refused to budge. And I nearly blew my top. I couldn’t believe that she couldn’t see our need as a family, to do something together. What happened to the Vera I knew? The Vera who’s compliant and considerate to others?

Breathe, I said to myself. Walk around, do something else, change tact.

I came back to the negotiating table and asked her what was her reason for not wanting to go. She finally said in a whisper that she didn’t want to eat at the hawker centre, because it’s too hot after cycling there.

When I finally understood her need, I told her we’d find an air-conditioned place to have dinner, and that she would feel comfortable there. With that, she finally went to get ready.

Once we were out in the park, the air changed. Our moods were all tons lighter. We started to smile and joke again.

It was just a small thing…

Yes, our family had a shared need – to go out and get our bodies moving, something she wasn’t so keen on in the first instance.

But she also had her own need. Which was waiting to be voiced out and heard.

At that moment, I felt like flaring. I felt like throwing in the towel. I’m glad I didn’t. The problem had a ready solution, that could be win-win. If I had flared and fought, it would have been lose-lose.


Sometimes, we need to take a step back.

Sometimes, we need to give the child the benefit of the doubt. She wasn’t being ‘the problem’. She just had a need that was waiting to be understood.

(Of course I hope that one day, she’ll be able to set aside her needs and consider the greater need. But that’s work-in-progress…)

For now, we’re just interested in solving the problem, and crossing the hurdle together.

It’s amazing what open space and fresh air can do for the soul.

The next time you feel like you’re engaged in a battle of wills, try any of these instead:

1. Remind yourself that you don’t have to engage in a battle. You can be firm on what needs to be done, but leave some room for the child to decide how to do it.

2. Walk away and do something else for a minute. Drink a sip of water, anything to calm things down in your system.

3. Change tact. Soften your tone. Approach things like a problem that is waiting to be solved.

4. Ask how she really feels, seek to understand things from her perspective (in other words, in her shoes).

5. Describe the problem you’re facing. Ask if she has any ideas or solutions to propose. Try to come up with a viable solution together.

I read this from ‘How To Talk So Kids Will Listen And Listen So Kids Will Talk‘, and it helped to put things in a fresh perspective.

It requires a great act of faith to believe that if we take the time to sit down and share our real feelings with a young person, and listen to his feelings, together we’ll come up with solutions that will be right for both of us.

There is an important message built into this approach. It says, “When there is conflict between us, we no longer have to mobilize our forces against each other and worry about who will emerge victorious and who will go down in defeat. Instead, we can put our energy into searching for the kinds of solutions that respect both our needs as individuals.”

10 ways to help your child take “no” for an answer

take no for answer

Mummy, I want bread.

Mummy, I want some OJ.

Mummy, can I have some yoghurt?

Mummy, can we play for 10 more minutes? (And this is after they’ve already extended for 10 minutes.)

Mummy, this, mummy, that… By the time you’re at request no.235 for the day, the word “no” is already ringing in your head. But wait, hold yourself back, breathe, and read this post first. Here are some tips on how to help your child accept “no” without throwing a tantrum.

1. Don’t use “no” upfront.

Usually when you start with the NO, all they hear is the NO, and then the bawling begins and no amount of logic or reasoning will help.

Instead, try stating the reason or the context first. For instance, “We are in a crowded place, and it’s dangerous for you to play running games here. So I need you to stop now, and we can continue playing later.” (Did I use the word “no” in that at all? No!)

2. Focus on the positive.

For example, “I can’t give you what you want right now, BUT after your nap, we can eat some cookies together! How does that sound?” Or try phrasing it in the positive. Instead of no, no, no, or don’t, don’t, don’t all the time, try positively-worded instructions like be gentle, be kind, be courteous, be friendly, be helpful. You just might be surprised!

3. Rely on routines or established schedules.

For example, “It’s lunch-time now, but you can go to the playground in the evening, which is when we usually go.”

4. Reach an agreement beforehand.

If it’s bedtime and your child tends to drag it (Which kid doesn’t really?), agree on the number of books you will read at bedtime before it’s time to go to bed. Then if your child still protests, remind him of the agreement and the importance of keeping his word. If your child tends to lose it when it’s time to go home after a nice outing, reach an agreement on the time that you’ll be spending at the activity before heading home. That way, you minimise the chance of having a you-against-me battle when going home; just follow the agreed schedule.

5. Practise empathy and acknowledge his feelings.

Acknowledge his feelings, say “I know you’d really like to stay on and play because it’s so super fun here.” OR “I can see you’re upset because you can’t have those strawberries right now, and I know you love yummy strawberries. When I’ve finished the chores, we’ll go to the supermarket together and grab the biggest punnet okay?” Follow on with hug and kisses.

6. Use your body language.

When you have to say no to your child’s request, don’t shout it from across the room where you’re busy doing the dishes. Especially when your child has taken the pains to come to you, and ask – you know that it means something to him. You’ve got to be physically close to your child, even kneeling so that you’re at his eye level. This will help him to be more receptive to the rejection, and be more willing to accept the reason / logic behind it.

7. Be consistent.

All the tips here will work a lot harder for you, if you’ve worked hard at enforcing clear consistent rules. No eating after brushing teeth. (If you really have to eat, then you’ve got to brush again.) No snatching things from each other, otherwise the toy goes straight into the storeroom. No calling each other names. Consistency is key, when helping a child differentiate what’s right from what’s wrong.

8. Call upon a super-hero.

JJ’s favourite super-heroes are spiderman and batman. Occasionally they come to our rescue when we get stuck in a battle of wills. “JJ, spiderman wouldn’t throw a tantrum because he doesn’t get a banana, you know? He’s too busy fighting the bad guys!” It usually works to distract him, or at least to release the tension in the room. (Sometimes…I can almost see him stop and think about what his fav hero would do.)

9. Sometimes they just need a reminder.

Especially if it’s something that you’ve already told your child multiple times and she already knows what not to do. For example, no eating after brushing your teeth. Instead of scolding them (“Don’t be silly, NO EATING after you’ve brushed your teeth.”) You can just remind them, “But sweetie, you’ve brushed your teeth, haven’t you?” Then wait.

They will usually get it pretty quickly, as long as the rule has been enforced consistently.

10. Say “yes” often.

Make it a point to say yes often, especially when it’s something that you don’t actually have a strong case for turning down. You know, the extra two minutes at the playground, or that occasional ice-cream for dessert. You don’t want your child to remember you as the boring EVERYTHING-ALSO-NO-mom.

There are of course certain situations when we have to use a direct and loud “No.” For instance, if your child starts to run across the street, you’d be yelling “No!” while simultaneously grabbing him off the road. But for most day-to-day situations, there are gentler ways to get them over the bumps.

If you’ve found this post helpful, do share it with your friends!

For more ideas on how to deal with tantrums and difficult behaviour, do check out our “Raising a Resilient Child” workshop in October!

One big beautiful mess

Kids thrive in mess. That’s why they don’t need to be taught how to make a mess on a daily (or hourly) basis.

It’s us uptight mums who get frustrated by mess, especially when we are the ones who do the cleaning up. I mean, we get the kids to take on the responsibility too but who am I kidding if I say that happens 100% of the time.

And holidays, topsy turvy schedules, parties, and cough bugs, and gifts (ahem) make for a mega-mess.

After three kids, you’d think that I’d have learnt by now to “let it go.” Mess? Dive in it! Throw it all up in the air!

Even the hubby, who is some kinda rare, neat, organised man, says to me, “Let it be messy, don’t worry about it now.”

But although the mummy sees it as stress, the kids love mess.

My daughter is one creative mess monster. Her stickers, doodles, artwork, lie in secret corners of the bookshelf, waiting to be uncovered.

My super-hero-loving boy’s toy cars and lego bits lie everywhere. He brings a different toy to the dining table each meal and leaves them there. On bad days, the table is overtaken by toys, pencils, craft works and other things that we have to shove to one corner to make space for dinner.

What mess, mummy??

What mess, mummy??

And the baby well…is just going about his baby ways. He finger feeds himself 30-50% of each meal, and post-meal carrots, broken vegetable bits, and pasta lie on the floor like prisoners of war. Naturally, he relishes my look of horror whenever he smears his face or head with food bits, and even tries to mess up my hair along with it.

Deep breath. I wish I could let it all go. But it gets to me.

Simplify and declutter is my new mantra. We simply have too much. (I don’t mean to sound ungrateful for the blessings and love that family and friends shower on the kids, but really living with heaps of toys is a whole different ballgame.)

The kids have become mildly obsessed with their new toys and I’ve had to give at least two lectures this past week on how our siblings, who are alive and kicking, are infinitely more important than the cute things that we now suddenly possess. I’m not entirely sure they are getting it…but I pray some day they will.)

I look around the house and I can’t help but feel grumpy. Every day I’m cleaning out some cupboard, packing away old and misfit toys, and clearing old clothes. Upkeeping a house with three kids is truly stretching my organisation skills to the max. (Whatever little organisation skills I have anyway.)


I will  relax and roll with it.

Life is not perfect. Our house will not be a perfectly clean and tidy space. And I can accept that. I can relax a little, look past the mess, maybe cover both eyes if I have to.

I will work towards simplicity.

I will tackle one corner, one basket of things, one clothes cupboard at a time. I will work towards a simple life and home, one that’s not so much filled with things, but filled with love.

I will love, in spite of the mess.

Heck, parenthood is messy business. But there’s not just the mess and dirt and grime and tears. There’s also the fun, love, and laughter that happens every single day. I will choose to relish that.

When Jesus came down to earth, He came down to mess. The human race is known to be extremely capable when it comes to making mess. But He dived into it all, and mingled with the worst of our kind – tax collectors, prostitutes, you name it.

He didn’t approve of it. But He didn’t stand in the corner and judge. He worked with the people, some of the hardest and messiest folks – infinitely harder than my five-, three-, and one-year-old.

That makes me realise. I can actually work with them through the mess. I don’t have to do it on my own, and feel disgruntled. I can get them involved in small phases, small steps. And learn to have fun in the process.

Since we live together, we’ll deal with it together.
One messy pile at a time.
And while we’re at it, we might even have a bit of fun, or learn something.

I am hopeful.

2015, here we come. Mess or no mess, I will embrace the imperfections of our little family, and stretch my muscles to love and extend grace.

Blessed 2015, friends. (Leaving you with a quote from Dr Seuss…)

mess is so big and so deep and so tall

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