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3 Magic Phrases for Parents


“How did you do that?”

The final phrase I want to share is a fun one, with lots of room for variations and creativity. Speaking of creativity, that's what it's all about. The “next time” (there's that phrase again) your child shows you something he made, react as you feel fit, but go ahead and add the question: “How did you do that?” You can emphasize the word “how” or the word “do” or even “that.” Mix it up a bit. Keep it fresh. (Might be best not to emphasize the word “you” though.)

This is a practice I read about when I was teaching young children at Stanford's Bing Nursery School. It was mainly developed and shared by George Forman, professor of education at the University of Massachusetts. He is highly respected in early childhood education circles—you know, people who strive to understand and encourage deeper thinking in young children. Wait, you're in that circle too now. Welcome!

The aim behind asking children “how” they did something is to get them to focus on the process of their work. Asking them to chronologically take you through the steps is a great cognitive exercise—good for memory and language development as well as story-telling skills. As Forman explains in his article, “Helping Children Ask Good Questions,” “When a teacher has practiced this art of revisiting, the children will learn to reflect and to re-construct their understandings.”

That's all well and good for the teacher in you, but your child will delight when the parent in you is showing genuine interest in her creations. Try it. The next time you see something your child made, ask him, “How did you do that?” Don't feel pressure to be amazed. If you are, then by all means: express yourself. But the general idea is to show you care about your child's abilities, interests and ideas. The goal is to get them to think more deeply—nothing wrong with that.

Keep these phrases in the back of your mind and take your time with it (incidentally “take your time” is another good one for all of us). For parents, practice may never make perfect, but patiently striving to do our best is a worthy goal. These phrases can help. The “next time” you're at a birthday party, and your child stomps his foot and says, “But Max gets to have three pieces of cake!” just calmly explain, “In this family, we try to eat healthy so we can grow up strong.” When he walks away knowingly, your friend will ask you, “HOW did you do THAT?”


Tom Limbert is is a Parent Coach in the San Francisco Bay Area and can be found online at has been working with families of young children since 1992. He has a Master’s degree in Education with an emphasis in Early Childhood Development. He is the author of the upcoming book, Dad's Playbook: Wisdom for Fathers from the Greatest Coaches of All Time.