6 Powerful Words Parents Can Say to their Kids

I can’t put my finger on the exact moment I first heard the phrase, but it stuck with me. I think I was pregnant and probably soaking up all the best advice I could get on being a positive influence on my child. In my mind, my own attitude played an important role in raising a happy, healthy, and confident little girl in a world that often praises good achievements and performances. The thought of the pressures she’ll feel as she grows up nearly cripples me. If I can help her understand what it is I value – and truly believe it for myself – I’ll hopefully be able to offset some of the internal and societal influences that may tell her she’s inadequate.

The words came to mind again today during a routine trip to the playground:

I love to watch you play.

Six Powerful Words Parents Can Say to their Kids - on AdventurousParents.com. Photo by Meghan J. Ward.
Photo by Meghan J. Ward.

Despite the many hours I have spent walking circles around play structures as she climbs steps, swings from features that are far beyond her years, and chooses the slide she’ll ride to the ground, I realized today just how much I was loving to watch her play.

I loved it for so many reasons: the sheer joy in her curiosity and discoveries, her awareness of a growing self-confidence in her abilities, her care-free attitude (runny nose dripping, pink jogging pants caked with dirt, ponytail falling out from under the elastic), and her own love of play and experimentation.

Oh, the innocence of childhood – what a gift it is to witness!

While no one can claim to have coined the phrase, it was certainly popularized by the three decades of insights gathered by Bruce E. Brown and Rob Miller of Proactive Coaching LLC. According to this article, in their research, “college athletes were asked what their parents said that made them feel great [during youth and high school sports], that amplified their joy during and after a ballgame.”

Can you guess? “I love to watch you play.”

Six Powerful Words Parents Can Say to their Kids. Photo by Paul Zizka Photography.
Photo by Paul Zizka Photography.

My daughter is two-and-a-half now. Play these days involves blocks and playgrounds, not soccer balls and sports teams. I can only imagine the power these words will hold as she grows older and the pressures to perform descend on her.

But beyond performance, I think these words have a number of applications:

1. Children are losing their sense of play and, in particular, unstructured, outdoor play. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve endless hours of play in the forest behind our house (yes, unsupervised!), made-up games at the park with our neighbours, trips to the maple tree farm or strawberry patch, and walks through the woods, where we’d collect fallen leaves to dip in paraffin wax. Letting your kids know that you love to watch them play will hopefully get them out the door more often, away from TVs and screens, and using their creativity and imagination in the great outdoors.

2. “I love to watch you play” insinuates that the parent is watching. I’m guilty as charged for checking my phone while my daughter is playing. While often for somewhat good reasons (work demands, coordinating FaceTime calls with family, or making a grocery list), there are many times I am simply not watching. This six-word phrase encourages parents to enjoy play as much as their kids.

3. I was sad to learn that girls drop out of sports at six times the rate of boys. There are a number of causes for this (shifts in needs and attitude, confidence issues, poor coaching, sports seen as unfeminine), and the effects are concerning: sedentary lifestyles and a lack of regular exercise. I hope my daughter will learn to embrace the healthy, active lifestyle in a way that feels right for her. By letting her know that I love watching her play, I hope I can instil in her a love for motion and taking good care of herself.

4. This six-word phrase isn’t only reserved for children. My husband is the epitome of young-at-heart, and his love of play and discovery keeps me young and adventurous. I must honour his need to play, and keep our ‘playfulness’ as a family central in our lives, seeking out opportunities to explore and be curious together. This might mean mountain adventures or international travel, afternoons spent biking around Banff or venturing down a new trail.

No matter what, we’re more than blessed to be able to play in our part of the world, so let’s embrace it. It’s a simple gift we can give to our children. Try saying this phrase tomorrow, and again the next day, and the next.

I love to watch you play. 

Author: Meghan J. Ward

Meghan J. Ward is an outdoor, travel and adventure writer based in Banff, Canada, and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Meghan has written several books, as well as produced content for films, anthologies, blogs and some of North America’s top outdoor, fitness and adventure publications. She has a forthcoming travel memoir (Fall 2022), to published by Rocky Mountain Books.

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