The Kids Are Listening – 5 Harmful Things You’re Saying

“Children are like sponges” – have you ever heard that phrase? I think it’s so accurate – they pick up on everything that’s going on around them.

The other day, I asked my three year old to smile while I took a photo and suddenly she had her hand on her hip and was pouting at me! Where did that come from?? And later on, I overheard her putting her teddy on a time out  (apparently he had been rude…!).

There’s no doubt about it – the kids are listening.

We are parenting all the time – even when we think we’re off-duty – because the kids are watching all the time. It can feel like a lot of pressure and it’s one of the reasons why it’s so important for parents to take a break from time to time.

But don’t panic – as long as you’re a decent person and use a bit of common sense, you won’t go far wrong.

However, there are a few less-obvious situations that you might not have thought about before and can end up being quite damaging for your kids to hear.

The kids are listening - is it okay to lie in front of your kids? - children collecting shells on the beach

5 things to avoid when the kids are listening

Can’t do it

  • “He can’t catch a ball.”

You know how it goes – you meet up with a fellow mum for a playdate and their child wants to play catch. You know that your child isn’t very good at it and, without thinking, the words slip out – “He can’t catch a ball.”

But the kids are listening – your child heard you say that he can’t catch and, without realising, you’ve just made it even harder for him to learn. He now thinks that he has an inability to do it, and that you don’t have the belief in him either.

It can be very damaging.

Now, you may think I’m overreacting and that it’s only a little thing but, as I always say, gentle parenting is about using empathy to guide your choices. So let’s put ourselves in a similar situation…

Imagine you have been asked to pull together some statistics for a project at work and you actually end up finding the maths really difficult so you ask your boss for some help. Then imagine later on, you overhear the boss saying to someone else that you’re rubbish with statistics.

How would that make you feel? Would it encourage you to keep trying? Or would it make you want to give up altogether? Would it knock your confidence? Would it make you think twice before taking on a statistics project again?

The kids are listening - is it okay to swear in front of your kids? - young child with a yellow bucket


This is always a hotly debated subject – is it okay to swear in front of your children? In my opinion, I don’t think it is, because the kids are listening. They may not understand the words but they are learning them all the same, and they will copy.

As an adult, you know when it is appropriate to use those words, and when it is completely inappropriate (e.g. at work). However, a child does not understand this – they will use the word in any context, which can land them in trouble at school or with other family members.

Have you ever started a new job and been given some training from a fellow member of staff? A few months later, you’re asked to cover a shift at a different office. You complete the paperwork as you have always done, but your new line manager gets cross, claiming you’ve cut corners.

It turns out the original trainer taught you an easy method but it does not meet company regulations. You feel confused. You were only doing as you were taught but now it’s got you into trouble. You did it exactly the way you saw your superior doing it but apparently it’s wrong and you had no idea! It’s also really difficult to unlearn the procedure that you were taught because it has become second nature.

The kids are listening - negative labelling can be harmful to children - child digging a sandcastle

Negative Labelling

  • “You’re a grumpy bum, aren’t you!”

The brain works by creating connections (paths) between thoughts. The more often a path is used, the easier it is to think that thought again. If you tell your child they are grumpy, their brain will add “grumpiness” into their opinion of themselves.

If you repeatedly tell them they are grumpy, that pathway will be easier and easier to access until the child can’t help but internalise it and believe it. You should always be very careful about negatively labelling anyone – e.g. naughty, fussy, grumpy, lazy, etc.

The kids are listening - diagram to show how the self-fulfilling prophecy works

The kids are listening to what you say because they trust you. It’s commonly known as “the self-fulfilling prophecy”.

Imagine your partner constantly tells you that you are rubbish at cooking. The first few times, you brush it off, but the more you hear it, the harder it is to ignore – you trust this person’s opinion. Eventually you start telling others that you’re rubbish at cooking.

Whenever you try to cook, the thought that you are rubbish is niggling in the back of your mind and you question all your cooking decisions. And yup – you end up creating a terrible meal because you don’t trust your instincts anymore.


  • “I didn’t buy anything when we went shopping today.”

Most children will go through a phase where they lie to you – this is one skill that doesn’t need to be taught! But remember, the kids are listening – if you are untruthful, it’s going to be even more difficult to teach them honesty.

You might not think it matters while they are little, but children understand a lot more than we give them credit for. If you can see a time in the future where you will get annoyed at your kids for telling lies (e.g. as teenagers), then you need to make sure that you are telling the truth now, otherwise you’re just a hypocrite.

If our children are brought up in an environment that values honesty, they are much more likely to be honest themselves. The kids are listening.

Imagine your friend regularly lies to her partner about how much she spends on shopping. It plants the seed that maybe you don’t need to be honest about your spending habits either. You start by little cover-ups, but suddenly you find that lying has become a “normal” part of life for you. And it all started because you saw someone else do it and you decided to try a little white lie…

The kids are listening - why you should be careful what you say in front of your children - kids collecting shells on the beach


  • “Leighton is definitely better at reading than Cole.”

I know, I know – it’s hard not to compare kids. As parents, we’re constantly worrying about whether they’re developing properly, and whether we’re bringing them up properly. If you have more than one child, you’ll probably find yourself comparing how tall they are, who is the tidiest, who learnt to walk first, etc.

It’s human nature.

But I do think it’s important to bear in mind that the kids are listening. You know that your child has other strengths, but they may just focus on the things you’ve said they’re not good at. They may even wonder if you prefer someone else to them.

Everyone has their role in a group of friends. Imagine you’re the caring one and Luke is the funny one. Now imagine a different friend, Claire, keeps talking about how funny Luke is and how you’re not very funny. You never set out to be funny – that’s not your thing – but the constant comparison makes you think that your offering (being caring) is not good enough, or that everybody likes Luke a lot more than you.

I hope you’ve found this helpful. A lot of these conversations are a normal part of everyday life and probably can’t be eradicated completely. But I do think that it’s important to be aware that the kids are listening. We’re the most important people in their lives – they learn by copying us, and our opinions shape their thoughts and development.

I think we overlook these parts of our conversation because they often seem small and insignificant, perhaps even unavoidable. But I hope that  thinking of similar adulthood situations helps you understand your child more. If you’d like to carry on discussing these things further, please feel free to join my Facebook Group for mums by clicking the banner here:

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Add yours
  1. 1

    Definitely food for thought.
    I will make sure I expand the positive comments I use. I do admit I sometimes say ‘grumpy’ but I’m positive too: but think I need to add to the list..

  2. 4

    I really want to be a better parent after reading your post. Yes, it is human nature to do these harmful things but it’s never too late to be a better person and parent. Both my husband and I need to watch our words. 🙂

  3. 6
    Tom @Ideas4Dads

    Agree with all of these. Kids are like sponges they hear and absob everything. Despite being conscious not to we have been guilty of all of these atvsome point. Its always a surprise when your 8 year says they know all the swear wirda and tell you off when you swear. Arguing is the big one for us not to do in front of the kids.

  4. 7
    Enda Sheppard

    So easy to forget that they are listening … our kids are both teens now and of course find us dull as mud and not worth listening to. But amazing how they pick up on when my wife and I are sharing thoughts on matters we don’t want to share with them. They will have headphones on and be mid-argument with each other and we will still hear from the back of the car “She said what?” #BlogCrush

  5. 9
    Liberty on the Lighter Side

    I love how you have given examples relevant to adults Lucy, it really does make a huge difference to our understanding when we put ourselves in their shoes. I know I fall into many of those traps, and I have been struggling with labels I was given as a child so you’d think I should know better! Thankfully it’s never too late to start anew. #blogcrush

  6. 12
    Sara @ MagicalMamaBlog

    Oh this is a brilliant post! We have all got to watch what we say around our children. They are little sponges and the last thing you want to be responsible for is giving them a complex or worry (or habit!) that sticks with them!
    Thanks for sharing at #BlogCrush!

  7. 13
    Mother of 3

    I think for me I have been made more aware of negative comments I might say about my own appearance. As my kids have gotten older I don’t want them to think that only our outward appearance matters so I try to bite my tongue much more often. #blogCrush

  8. 14
    Alice V

    Kids learn so much from their parents and even mimick what they do. I’ve seen it in my own children who are only 4 and 5 right now. I think about what I say in front of them or do in front of them because I know that even if it looks like they aren’t paying attention to me, they really are. #BlogCrush

  9. 17
    Daydreams of a mum

    Great post. Really clever and thought provoking to use examples in our adult day to day lives. I think the one I’m probably most guilty of is comparison. I do try not to do it but it does slip out from time to time and I certainly wouldn’t like it myself #blogcrush

  10. 18
    Dave - Dad’s Turn

    These are really useful tips and agree we need to be careful about what we say. It’s one of the biggest changes my other half and I have undergone, in trying to change what and how we say things. Really important! The last one especially I hadn’t really thought about before! #blogcrush

  11. 21
    Matthew for Holding arrows

    We put…not easy but well worth the effort.
    We have 6 children, a couple of adults down to 9 year old twins. We made a point of doing all the points you cover. Made many mistakes but are now proud of our tribe and how they respect each other, their peers, adults and the world. Thank you

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