If I were to break down our parenting into categories, I would say that %70 is spent offering empathy in some form or another, %20 is spent providing information (detailed explanations for how things work and why we are asking the kids to do what we are asking), and %10 on miscellaneous things like negotiating peace, brainstorming solutions, and a few executive decisions. When I look at the numbers it seems empathy takes up an enormous amount of our parenting time, and when I look a little deeper I realize it is, in part, because we are using empathy to supplant praise.
Praise, along with it's counterpart, punishment, is probably the most common parenting strategy in our culture. Chore charts, time-outs, stickers, allowance, consequences, etc. I know this is how I was raised, how most of us were raised. When I met Nathan and began to help parent Bella and Xi, we kept scratching our heads over this strategy. One of our rules was: when Bella hit, she got a time-out. So when she did hit, (time-outs did not deter the hitting), she immediately felt very upset, not by the fact that she had hurt someone but by how she was going to be affected. She was, quite literally, traumatized by the separation. This bothered us. Not only were time-outs not preventing the behavior, but we felt they were also causing our relationship with her to suffer, as well as raising our stress levels to uncomfortable heights. We decided the strategy wasn't working.
The book we looked to for help with this was Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn. Kohn makes the case that not only is praise and punishment not good for our kids, but it also backfires by taking away all of their own built-in motivation in any activity, wether it is swimming, clearing the table, spelling, or basketball. There's a lot more, but this information was all we needed to start down a different path, one that felt so much better.
Abandoning praise and punishment is how we got to %70 empathy. But praise, in particular, is not easy to shake. To start I find it helpful to identify what you are trying to achieve by using praise.
If you use praise because you want your child to know that you love her and to know that you are noticing her achievements, switching to simple observations will do just that. Observation is empathy at it's finest, simply seeing who your child is.
"I see you!"
"You climbed all the way up there!"
"I see you walking all by yourself. You seem pretty happy about that!"
"I saw you stack those toys up. Yeah. Then they fell down."
It feels silly at first, but all most children want is for you to see them and be with them. They aren't wondering if you deem their actions "good" (Good walking! Good sharing! Good jumping!).
What is important when observing, is to match your observations to their reactions. Let your face mirror theirs. If they are excited about walking all by themselves, then go ahead and get excited. If they are disappointed, then let them know you see that too. ("Oh. You didn't want those blocks to fall", instead of, "It's okay! You built that tower really high. Good job! Good building!")
Asking her questions is a great way to let her know you see what she is doing without forcing an opinion on her.
"You are wiping your hands. How do you like that? Do you like it when your hands are clean?"
"How is that for you?"
"Do you like that?"
"Is that fun?"
"Is that okay with you?"
If you are using praise in order to get your child to do something, a point to consider is that although praise may work well in the short term, it is also the best way to get them to forget what it is they want/enjoy/need in life, to eventually stop doing those things they were praised into doing, and to lose their close connection with you. (Please, don't take my word for it - read the book.)
Instead of looking for substitute words to say, it might be more effective to stop thinking in this way entirely. Kids are not here to be controlled, to perform on command, or to follow orders without thinking. Or, at least, this isn't the kind of human I want to raise. Children have a natural care for others, they automatically want to help the people they love. By creating a solid foundation, with empathy as the main tool, your child will listen and care for you and your ideas automatically. You build the foundation by supporting them through all of their struggles and triumphs with respect and empathy.
"You're really sad. You don't want to get in the car. You want more time at the park. You're not ready to go."
Maybe there is a little more back and forth as well:
"How much more time do you need here? Are you willing to go after you go down the slide three more times?"
This works if it is not a rote response, but truly feeling what the scenario might be like for them. Often this is enough to get the kid to the car. It certainly requires a lot of patience from the parent as the response is almost never instantaneous. Indeed, a simplified schedule is helpful. You might not want to squeeze a trip to the park into an already packed day, as this will not afford you the time necessary for a fully empathic response if the child doesn't want to leave. Time is not always saved by empathy but the relationship is, not only saved but enriched.
Then, when children feel heard and understood, they are much more willing to hear and understand what you are feeling. (Or anyone else for that matter.)
The same example continued:
"I know you aren't ready to leave the park yet. You were hoping to stay here a lot longer. But I am ready to leave. I'm having a hard time here at the park. I'm super hungry and also nervous about being late to meet our friends."
Empathy, followed by information. No praise, no punishment. It might look or sound crazy, but an exchange like this works for us every time.