These encouraging words will work wonders on your kids.

Knowing what to say to your children isn’t always easy—especially when you need to say something they don’t want to hear. It’s even more complicated when you are speaking to the people whose lives you have the most influence upon (not to mention when it feels like the entire grocery store checkout line is watching and listening intently). One book will tell you to say one thing, another will tell you to do the opposite. Both stances are backed up by research, so how do you know which is the right way? Take heart: while parenting perfection is indeed unattainable, I have a few fall-back phrases that can work wonders in kids. Read on for three magic phrases for parents.

“Next time…”

I picked up this phrase from clinical psychologist and early childhood educator Elinor Griffin. Her book, Island of Childhood, was written in the early ‘80s and it is still regularly referenced for early childhood education training at the best university-based lab schools today, including Stanford University. Griffin, like other early childhood parenting experts, understood that discipline for young kids is really all about teaching and learning—in fact, the Latin derivative disciplina is translated as instruction or education.

The idea for Griffin and other experts like Jane Nelsen, author of the popular Positive Discipline series is to treat mistakes as learning opportunities. The adult’s role is to gently help children translate and absorb the lesson—the goal being to learn from it, and improve in future endeavors. Which brings us to our first phrase: “Next time” Is a great phrase to use. When your child breaks a rule, crosses a line, or makes any mistake, instead of punishing her, talk about what happened, why it happened, and what we can do better next time.

Notice I said “we.” The more you create an atmosphere where your child can feel involved and like we’re all learning as we go, the better! When the focus is on solutions and learning, children are encouraged to strive for improvement in the future. “Next time” helps them get there. Griffin explains, “Hearing this, he thinks of himself as a success (tomorrow), rather than a failure today.”

Incidentally, if you want to build unity and hit home the idea that you are all working together, you might follow the phrase “next time” with the contraction “let’s.” “Next time” and “let’s” go together like peanut butter and jelly! With younger children, just combine them and let it roll: “Next time, let’s not throw the ball in the house so we don’t break anything,” or “Next time, let’s not hit our friend so we don’t hurt them.”

You might have noticed the word “so” snuck in there twice. It’s another useful add-on. Give a child a brief reason or explanation each time you set a limit. Why bother, you ask? Well for one, you instantly become more of a teacher and less of a dictator. (Who would you rather take input from?) You also instill your values and expectations. In short, you treat your child with respect. When you do that, he will more likely treat you with mutual respect.

With older children, the phrase “next time” maintains its value—just add a question mark at the end inviting their input. “What will you do next time?” or “What can you say next time so that doesn’t happen?” Convey with your tone and your language that things can be fixed. Create a dialogue and keep the focus on solutions and future improvement. Griffin elaborates, “Focusing on ‘next time,’ of course, does more than help a child feel better about himself. It serves as a review and a preparation and is thus real teaching.” Hard to argue with that.

“In this family…”

I acquired the next phrase at a family camp I was attending last summer when an expert therapist explained that a parent can use the phrase, “in this family” to help him define his family’s morals and practices. It makes perfect sense. If you haven’t felt the need for this phrase yet, just you wait until your child is in school. You’ll want to keep it handy.

Your child is going to adamantly declare that Jenna has Fruity Pebbles at snacktime everyday! And Anthony has all ten Star Wars movies! That’s your cue. The earlier you get them used to hearing it the better. Confidently explain how “In this family…” Go ahead and follow it with the pronoun “we” and eventually the word “because.” For example, you might say, “In this family we do not eat sugary desserts on week nights because sugar is not good for our bodies and we limit how much of it we eat in order to be healthy.” You will be getting everyone on the same page by defining your family’s mutual goals and morals. Eventually they’ll see the light (when they have kids of their own perhaps).

“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 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.

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 phrase 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, MA is a parenting author and an educator at Parents Place in Marin County.