Phrases to Hear and Avoid

We can't really think until we think in our own words without the prejudicial labels and without mistaking the voices in our heads for our own real thoughts.*

In October, 2018, I asked Deb Lewis to create an introduction to this page, and received this response:

Dear Sandra,

I struggled with your request for this intro. It's been a real battle. Left to my own devices, I wouldn't have catered to your every whim. I'm not some version of a short order cook, after all. I shouldn't have to be at your beck and call. I'm not your slave. I don't owe you anything. The world doesn't revolve around you. It's like you want everything handed to you on a silver platter. As if you have to be waited on hand and foot. Well, I suppose there's no sense in throwing a fit. I'll finish what I started.

And about your readers, they're glued to their screens, taking the easy way out. They've turned into zombies. You could talk until you're blue in the face, but you'll never be able to do enough. If you give them an inch, they'll take a mile. They are manipulative, and you need to teach them you are not their puppet. You might have to resort to bribery to get them to stop fussing and fighting. They've seriously got the gimmes. You could literally stuff good information down their throats, and they'd still be bouncing off the walls, all hyped up. You could leave them to fend for themselves but then they'd be at each other's throats. They really feel if mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.

This will spoil your appetite for helping others, but it serves you right. I'm at my wit's end. Whatever. You do you. Just remember, all things in moderation.


To read more by the word genius Deb Lewis in her unsolicited and very own phrases, here's a collection: Deb Lewis

Keith was telling me a story of a frustrating day at work and said of a co-worker, "He was full of quips, but none of his own ideas."

This page is about the kinds of "quips" that allow people to talk, or write, without expressing any of their own ideas.

at 42:30 in the recording of Partnerships and teams in the family I talked about these things, humorously, and a transcript would be good, but until then, it's at that link.

A message to your grandchildren

photo by Julie D, of Adam Daniel and Holly Dodd

Your children are developing a holographic internal image of you, complete with voice and emotion. The things you do and say are being recorded for posterity; make them sweet and good. What you choose to say and do now will affect what your children say to their children, and what your great grandchildren will hear after you're long gone.

Live like you're their last hope.

and now, the original starting place for this page: 🙂

Phrases to Hear and Avoid

It's easy for a mom to say things without really hearing what she's saying. Please be aware of your thoughts as often as you can be, and don't say things to your children that are spoken without real consideration. For example:

Left to his own devices...

"She has become bored and stagnant when left to her own devices."

—"If left to her own devices, she would seriously sleep until 4 or 5 pm..."

—"He would eat 6+ apples a day if let to his own devices.

" —"...but when left to her own devices (which she is, 99.9% of the time) she will eat cereal, ice cream, popsicles, cookies, gum, anything sweet before she'll eat the healthy stuff."
This idiom is old and often precedes an insult. It's a recommendation for control. If someone has failed to manage and control another person, thereby "leaving him to his own devices," something vaguely evil or irritating will happen (it seems).

When a mom writes that of her child, it's worth wondering why that poor child doesn't have a partner to help him explore the world as all unschooled children should have!

And I wonder to whose "devices" he should be "left"? Don't leave your children! Be there!

Someone asked about children Fending for themselves, at Always Learning.

I wrote:

"Fend for yourself" is not a modern phrase, and because of that it's only going to be used by someone channeling an older voice.

It suggests abandonment, or having been orphaned, or shipwrecked. 🙂

So if someone else said "children should be left to fend for themselves," that's not very good unschooling (and I doubt it was said). If an outsider said "those children are being left to fend for themselves," it's an insult to the mom. Perhaps it's a deserved insult. I've seen moms drinking alcohol and ignoring children by swimming pools and such. Some were unschoolers, most weren't.

. . . .
Children should not be left to themselves unless they're enjoying the solitude. Parents should be nearby, attentive, supportive, aware.
As much as I love English, I don't even know the word "fend" outside of that phrase, and in "fend off" (a wolf, or an attacker) and the term "defend." Now that I think of it, though, whatever fending is must be what the fenders do on trucks and cars. Kids shouldn't need to do that for themselves, whatever it is.

I looked at Etymonline.com, and it said "Developed a meaning 'make provision, give care' in Scottish English (16c.)" so there is the meaning in "fend for himself."

Fussing and Fighting

-=-My boys fuss and fight about playing video games,-=-
The phrase "fuss and fight" has probably been handed down for generations in your family. It's not the sort of heirloom to keep and use.

If you think of it another way, you might feel better right away. They're having a hard time negotiating. They need help maintaining the peace.

At each others' throats

-=-The last couple of weeks they have been at each other's throats.-=-
Probably neither even touched the other child's throat.

"The world doesn't revolve around you."

If I had a penny for every time heard "the world doesn't revolve around you" from both of my parents, I would be an independently rich woman. —Dina M.

"got the gimmes"

...as in "when the kids got the gimmes" [the parents prohibited their watching commercial TV]
When children's needs are filled and they feel love and abundance, they are less likely to "get the gimmes." Using that sort of put-down AND punishing them in addition to that, is not good partnering nor good relationship building.

Joyce Fetteroll, March 2013, commenting on "Children enjoy consistency":

Whenever you're contemplating a truism that begins with "Children like ...", "Children need ...", change children to people and ask yourself if it's true. More often than not the answer will be "Some do and some don't."

Some people like life to be predictable. Some don't.

What makes your child happy and comfortable?

"If you give them an inch they'll take a mile."

"My mother brought us up with the parenting motto (loudly and regularly stated) that 'if you give them an inch they take a mile.'...[W]e kids rarely asked for things but she would still triumphantly point at another whining child as 'proof' that her methods were correct." —Alison/almadoing

"not cater to his every whim...

"Of course, I'm assuming that you will drive him in for classes and the occasional social event, but not cater to his every whim about driving him any more than you would for your 13 yo." (AlwaysLearning list, August 2010; post returned, phrase saved)

no matter how much I cater to my toddler's every whim (or at least attempt to), she's still going to throw fits, right? (see "to throw fits" here)

"...won't lift a finger to help around the house"

This was used in a discussion once. Joyce responded beautifully to the newcomer's questions, and I saved it here at "Building a Relationship? Or Tearing it Down?".

There is no counterpart to this always-insulting phrase. There is no sweet offer, like "I would love to lift a finger to help, if you need me! Just call." It's a long phrase, too—"won't lift a finger" is nearly always followed by "to help." If you're thinking of your child as lazy, there's more help for that here: The danger of "Lazy" and other thoughts

"I am available plenty for my kids but cannot be at their beck and call." (facebook, unschooling page, 8/9/11)
That's a negative way to see kids' needs, or their desire to be parented. "Beck and call" is a VERY old phrase, and has to do with servants, who were expected to be close enough for someone to beckon them over. But that phrase has only existed as part of a rejection, a put-down, for at least 100 years.

Parents SHOULD be at a child's beck and call, probably, especially when the children are younger. The difference between attachment parenting and "cry it out" methods is that attachment parents know as soon as the child needs something, and cry-it-out parents hear the call, but choose not to respond.

"I'm not a short order cook."
"As a member of this family, it's enough for me to make one meal, I am not a short-order cook." (unschooling.info forum, 3/19/06; forum is defunct)

My mom used to say that. It was a defensive way to tell a child NO!, in a self-righteous, self-protective, put-down way. I didn't even know what "a short-order cook" was, of course, but there were a few times I wished I had one, instead of the mom I had, because I was hungry for something particular, and had asked nicely.

"That will spoil your appetite."
Ren says "The point of eating is to spoil your appetite."
I think what people meant, at one time, is "if you eat now, you won't be so hungry at mealtime that we can train you with food, like a dog. If you're not hungry, we can't threaten to withhold the rest of your dinner if you won't hold your fork right, or sit still, or chew the way we tell you to. If you eat when you want to, we aren't controlling your bodily functions as we would like to." Now people might speak the phrase without thinking all those meanings, but there is something in the statement "it will spoil your appetite" that makes "appetite" more important than the child.

"I'm not your slave."
[Not a direct quote from something recent, but I heard it when I was little.]

Someone wrote:

Unschooling doesn't mean that you are a slave to your children.
Deb Lewis responded:

One thing I've seen really help people move in the direction of unschooling is a deliberate and thoughtful change in the way they think about and talk about their children.

I think we very often repeat things we've heard without fully considering them. They might seem to make sense on some level (usually the level of our wounded-in-childhood selves) so we hold onto them and reuse them but haven't really thought about them. I think the phrase "slave to your children" is one of those things.

—Deb Lewis, quoted at Joyce's page

Related phrases:
        I'm no one's slave.
        I'm not your servant.
        Who do you think you are?

Thoughts on the meaning and value of service.

"They simply expect to have everything handed to them on a silver platter..."
(letter to Joyce Fetteroll, to which she responded at the bottom of this linked page).

Joyce, to someone who said her son was Lazy.

Someone wrote:
In the past my kids have tended to expect to be waited on hand and foot.

If you use phrases like "to be waited on hand and foot," you're quoting other people. That usually means the other person's voice is in your head, shaming you. Or it means you've adopted some anti-kid attitudes without really examining them. If you're having a feeling, translate it into your own words. It's a little freaky how people can channel their parents and grandparents by going on automatic and letting those archaic phrases flow through us. Anything you haven't personally examined in the light of your current beliefs shouldn't be uttered, in my opinion. Anything I can't say in my own words hasn't really been internalized by me. As long as I'm simply quoting others, I can bypass conscious, careful thought.

This was quoted on Just Add Light and Stir one day, and got a really great comment. Click to go there.

"If mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy."

If moms aren't happy helping their children find happiness, there isn't going to BE any happiness. Discussion and links are here.

"All things in moderation."

Leah Rose wrote:

I've been thinking about that saying "All things in moderation." Next time someone says it to me, I think I might just ask them: "Do you mean we should have joy in moderation? Should we have peace in moderation? Kindness in moderation? Patience in moderation? Forgiveness? Compassion? Humility?"

Honestly, I used to think it sounded like a very wise and balanced philosophy. Now, the more I think about it the less sense it makes.


Time out; Sandra note:
Some of those above are centuries old. I want to share the most overused in the early 21st century:

I'm battling... or blah blah blah, and it's a battle.

It's not my imagination that "battle" is wildly over-used now. In WWII it was being used, of real battles, and of difficulties getting supplies across water, across battlefields. Now, it's used about the least little things, for dramatic effect, to make the speaker a martyr.

"Battling" had upticks for WWI and WWII, but now everyone's battling all their problems, and I recommend strongly that they stop (or that unschoolers stop, at least). SandraDodd.com/battle

The word isn't new. Jane Austen used it frequently. In vain, Mr. Darcy struggled—in vain (or so he claimed). People struggled to maintain their countenance, or composure. In 2018, people express their struggles freely and openly, before describing something not worth struggling with.

If you want to see whether struggles are coming or going, statistically, you can check here: Ngram Viewer

You do you!

How have people here seen "you do you" used? I want to add it to the phrases page, with notes.
Maybe I can add it here with a link to a discussion. There were a few usage notes there halfway through 2018.
Back to older things that have been on this page and in the world for a while:

This was written of one-year-olds in high chairs:
"They are manipulative by nature and we need to teach them we are not their puppet."

Not a face-to-face put-down, but an attitude of antagonism and resentment. And a sad atmosphere for that poor sweet child who is about to learn that his mother isn't very nice, nor very aware of child development.

Throwing a fit

no matter how much I cater to my toddler's every whim (or at least attempt to), she's still going to throw fits, right?
"Throw"? Throw a what where? "A fit"? Meaning what? (radical unschooling info, May 30, 2013)

"...until they start bouncing off the walls and are hyped up"

You know what causes that, right? (Well, quoting critical relatives, mostly.)
SUGAR. (So say parents; studies show parents are wrong.)

Mostly, children SHOULD be active and exuberant, but if a parent can criticize them for it AND punish/limit them by withholding sugar, the parents feel like "good parents," and when the children are sadder, and calm down, parents see that as proof of the "cause." But a dozen studies now have shown it to be false. Yet commercials, and schools, and parents continue to *insist* that children must be deprived or else they will get hyped up and bounce off the walls. Myths Too Many Parents Believe

TV, its critics say, will case a child to turn into a zombie.
So does reading a book—they sit just staring. So does going to a concert, if they're polite concertgoers. So does attending a play—if they know how to go to a play, they will sit there for two hours with only one break, staring at the lit-up stage, not moving. Maybe laughing when appropriate, but going right back to that stony stare. Movie theater, same thing. Nobody says "I'm not taking him to the movies anymore; he sits there like a zombie."

Glued to the screen

Someone wrote:
==millions of dollars poured into researching how to get your kids glued to the screen, and in most cases how to get them to buy something==
Jo Isaac:
"Glued to the screen" should be one of those phrases to hear and avoid, I think. My son has never been "glued to a screen." Sounds painful!

"taking the easy way out"

Someone wrote:

When do we be more direct? When do we wait it out? I may be taking the easy way out by just waiting until my son is older, but creating a potential conflict that could threaten all the good things doesn't seem like a risk I want to take.
I responded:

Not "the easy out." Make people's live easy. Don't think there's virtue in allowing difficulties to continue.

Make his life easier, if you can do it in some simple way. Make your neighbor's life easier by waiting until he's old enough that she can interact with him better. You said she interacts will with older kids. Make his life and yours easier by doing other things with him for now and not leaving him with ANYONE for any reason who isn't sweet and gentle and kind to him.

-=-I may be taking the easy way out-=-

That implies that there is an "in" to take him "out of."
His "in" should be with you.

Create a safe nest. If he's too little to leave the nest alone, you're wrong to set him outside of it. He will leave on his own when he's older and more competent.

"Take the easy way out" isn't a phrase you made up. It came from inside you. Maybe when you were younger you heard that you shouldn't take the easy way out.


Sandra Dodd:

My grandmother (granny/maternal) had another one. A rhyming phrase meaning "serves you right":

"That'll learn ya, durn ya."

It also rhymes in third person. "That'll learn him, durn 'im."

Sometimes it was said in a friendly, almost affectionate way, but just because it was one of the nicest put-down phrases I remember her using, that didn't keep it from being a put-down phrase. It meant "You got what you deserve," or "he had it comin' to him."

"I want my children to finish what they start."

People Do say that without thinking of all the horrible, harmful things they don't want their children to finish. more on finishing what we start
Sometimes a mom says she's not going to

resort to bribery

. It's not her phrase. It means kids should do what they're told (or asked) without any promises, reward, or negotiation.
How do places of business get people to go to work without "bribery"?

How do you get an auto dealer to give you a car without bribery?

The false charge of "bribery"

Mentioned on that same page:
Then we can come up against another phrase spoken for generations, and that is "I don't owe you anything," which has been spoken by parents to children for a long time, but it's harsh and mean, and in these days of choice, and in the light of compassion, it's just not even true.

"We've talked to him until we are blue in the face ..."

When you use a phrase that was used to you, or about you, or by older relatives, that shows that you're feeling embarrassed in a deep place in you, OR that you're not really thinking with your own mind about your own child.

Because "until we are blue in the face" is an idiom, and not a recent or current one, it's coming from one of the voices in your head, from your super-ego (kind of your unconscious conscience).

I am at my wits end.

Whose wits? Why do they end?

Using an idiom like that is not real thought nor real communication, usually. It's reciting something that an older relative said. It's shorthand for something. It's not thoughtful, it's reactionary and dismissive.

An idiom is a lump of words stuck together by repetition.
If the words can't be rearranged or replaced with other words, then they weren't individual words thoughtfully put together after careful reading, trying, waiting and watching.

"I'm at my ____ end," or "I'm at my wits _____" or "I'm ___ my wits end"? No, it's a lump, an idiom, a recitation.

Taking out the calcified phrases inherited from exasperated, cranky older (usually female) relatives will leave more peace and more space for REAL thought and communication.

In a discussion about whether a mom was doing enough, someone posted:

You'll never be able to do enough.

I've brought some of my response from that day:

If a statement is not going to help someone understand unschooling better, don't post it. If a statement is something that came from others, vaguely, someone, elsewhere, in the past, and is not from the unschooling knowledge and experience of the person writing, it's not a good thing to post here.

"You'll never be able to do enough" is defeatist and deflating. It makes a loser of everyone who internalizes it.

Part of deschooling is beginning to hear the voices in your head, and dismantling the equipment that is playing old tapes from others who are or were in your life, so that new messages and ideas will have room to blossom.

It is possible to do too little, when unschooling.
It is possible to do too much.

...down their throats

-=- they were in school having stuff literally crammed down their throats.-=-
-=-These so-called subject lesson were painfully being forced down their throats like the most disgusting food. -=-
-=- I'm not trying to shove it down their throats.-=-
-=-Are we going to shove our ideas down our kids' throats? -=-
-=-we also don't want the kids to have information shoved down their throats.-=-
-=-we don't try to cram facts and information down our kids' throats-=-
-=- This thought that we need to start cramming contrived learning down our young ones' throats or they'll lag behind-=-
-=-We certainly don't want to shove it down their throats though and have them rebel.-=-
-=-We both had lots of Christianity crammed down our throats but we also both had some good experiences too-=-
-=-...when a teacher decides it's time to shovel it down our throats! -=-
-=-we never push homework down their throats either-=-
-=-they had music shoved down their throats since they can remember-=-
-=- I don't feel that even the most overtly educational programs on PBS are shoving anything down kids' throats - not as long as there is a power button on the tv . -=-
              there were more, but that's plenty too many

As with "at each others' throats" above, no one literally crammed, forced or shoved anything down anyone else's throat. [Nor pushed, nor shovelled (I liked "shovelled").] Careful thought and speech lead to careful action. Careful speech leads to careful thought, too.

All the "down their throats" examples were found in the Always Learning group, in unrelated discussions over a dozen years.

Sandra in 2020, to a discussion participant, quoting her and responding:

-=-I am trying to ride it out. -=-

When you get a chance, please read through what you wrote and look for idiomatic expressions—for phrases you used that aren't your own carefully considered words.

You "let go of the reins." What was the horse—your children? Their lives? TV/media?

You're trying to ride something out, now. A storm? Are the children part of the storm? What is the storm? It seems you have an image of what your house will be like once you ride it out.

The creation of the desire was partly your doing. Please read this:
Economics of Restricting TV Watching of Children by Pam Sorooshian

Don't read it fast, as though it's an assignment in school and that you pass if you can answer five or ten questions about it. Read it thoughtfully, wondering how it could apply to what you've already done at your house—not just lately, but over the past few years.

Read it again in a week. Maybe put a reminder on your phone. May 30, 2020; reread Economics of Restricting TV Watching of Children, by Pam Sorooshian

Reading it once quickly would be like pouring water on your head if you were thirsty.

From an early anti-TV topic, before this page existed:

Someone said commercials would give kids "the gimmes." I responded:
My kids have never "had the gimmes."

I've tried to even change the words in which I will think about my children and their environment. There are LOTS of phrases used as put-down and belittlement.

  • "gimmes"
  • spoiled rotten
  • boob tube
  • junk food
  • brat
  • mindless tv
  • zombie
  • daydreaming (better connotation for some people than others)
  • It's possible to have long conversations with other parents that don't require much thought, that don't say anything original and are very disrespectful of children as a class and as individuals. Part of what got me where I am today was a conscious choice NOT to go there.

    the source, and some more of that,
    at "Book Worship"

    Commentary and frustrations

    Nancy wrote:

    Sheesh, I get so sick of all those clichés...all teens will rebel, "you're spoiling your kids," kids need lots of structure...

    What would be a better gift to our kids,...the aching urge to break free from the nest because theyr'e so confined and disciplined at home, or lots of freedom NOW so that that home is not something they want to push away. I don't know about all of you, but I want my kids to take their time leaving...my rejection of another hateful cliché that kids should be pushed out on their 18th birthday...phooey.

    Nancy (CelticFrau)


    Language and the way it is applied is fascinating, isn't it?

    We frequently hear children / people being described as:

    * immersed in a book

    * totally focused on their athletic performance

    * absorbed in watching ants

    but when it comes to tv, computer games, PlayStation games etc., so many people start using words like 'mesmerizing' and 'zombified'.

    The difference is not in the behaviour of the doer, the difference is in the observer's perception of the value of the activity. And that is where the real problem lies.


    Joyce has a page called "I do respect my kids," and it has a *long* list of "momisms."
    Tara Joe Farrell wrote, in response to someone else's "I am being walked all over"
    I'm guessing no one is actually walking on you, so these are someone else's words.

    Find your own words to say what is really happening: "I'm mad and sad because I want help around the house and my kids don't want to help right now."
    Always Learning, February 2019

    Insults using phrases unrelated to what was going on:
    "Your manner comes across like you are on a high horse." (to me, for administering Radical Unschooling Info according to long-stated guidelines, 2019)

    This was my writing (Sandra's) in 2004, in a discussion about limitations on food, here:
    Food Troubles....
    "We can't really think until we think in our own words without the prejudicial labels and without mistaking the voices in our heads for our own real thoughts."

    If you want to hear the following lists read by Sandra and Ren in careful imitation of the tone of voice in which they were delivered, you can hear it online at the bottom of this page: SandraDodd.com/rentalk

    Ren Allen and I did a talk at the Live and Learn Conference in St. Louis in 2005, and these are some of the things we quoted that were painful childhood memories:


    PUT that down right now.
    Don't touch that.
    You ask too many questions.
    Shut up.
    You're not hungry. You don't know what hungry is.
    Do you want a spanking?
    [W. Texas accent required:] If you don't stop that crying, I'm gonna give you something to cry about.
    Shut up, you little brat.
    You're book-smart, but you've got no common sense.
    You've never been hungry a day in your life.
    You've got so much potential, you're just not living up to it.
    You're going to eat that for breakfast if you don't finish it right now.
    You're all being a bunch of vultures (six hungry kids scarfing down meals)
    It's your choice, but we'll be SO disappointed in you if......(fill in the blanks)
    This is for adults only now, you kids go play somewhere else.

    Most of the phrases above are over 100 years old, but even new "truisms" can keep parents from being compassionate and from seeing their children directly.
    Once someone posted on a list I was on that "raising a teenager is like nailing jello to a tree." I report the outcome of that here.

    From a discussion of that page:

    HOW MUCH HAPPIER those families could have been had they dealt directly with one another as the actual people they were instead of taking on roles and spouting phrases they happened to have at the tip of their tongue (without thinking of where those bits of pre-formated dialog came from)...

    I LOVE my teens.



    On Other Pages

    "There are some truisms that are spoken without real examination and I think the very vague rules against bribery of children are right up top there."

    Me/Sandra, on a short page about bribery (not a good word to use for negotiating with an older child to help with a younger one) and the related ideas of what a child is "supposed" to do or "ought" to do. "Ought is an ancient word people probably haven't dissected or observed closely.


    Work Ethic, used of an individual, when the speaker/writer hasn't thought very clearly. This has its own page.

    "Junk food" is a term that stops thought and might revile a child and his favorite food. Joyce, Pam and I (and others) started discouraging the use of that term in 2001 or earlier. 😊

    A recently (2021) increasing abuse of a phrase is the idea of "being attacked." It's not said by a parent of children. I've collected some statements by people claiming to have been attacked, when it was no more than online discussion. One person admitted she was even a lurker, and had "felt attacked."

    Perceived attacks


    12 Old Words that Survived by Getting Fossilized in Idioms