03/25/2015 06:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

3 Words That Made My Relationship With My Kids So Much Better

Galit Breen

A few weeks ago, our family of five shuffled from one of my oldest's volleyball games to another. Coolers loaded, activities tucked into bags, water bottles filled (and refilled).

I spent a fair amount of time wondering about my younger two. Were they having fun? Was it fair to fill their weekend with this and only this? It was late into the second day when I released these worries. It took two things for this to happen.

The first was seeing my three children flock to each other when they could. As our schedules get busier, Jason and I often divide our time, activities and children. One of us takes one child where she needs to be and texts about another one's event from across town.

Seeing KayliChloeBrody fit together without these kinds of spaces was a startling wake-up call and reminder that in a family, sometimes the "purpose" of being at an event lies solely in supporting each other. They were there to cheer on their sister; there didn't really need to be more than this to the day. It was enough.

Noticing the simple goodness that comes from being together was important. But the second piece that helped me stop worrying about them was simple and complicated all at once. It took three words and one leap.

Chloe and Brody were sitting at a lunch table playing a bajillionth round of Go Fish. Do you remember those hard bench-style seats? They weren't comfortable to sit on for 20 minutes of lunch when we were kids, and I can confirm that they haven't softened or grown backs or become any more comfortable now that we're adults or when we need to sit on them for longer periods of time (like at all-day sporting events).

I'd just finished playing cards with them and when I stood to stretch my legs, I spotted Jason, so I walked over to him to check in. But as we were talking, he noted my eyes flitting over to our two.

"They're fine," he said. "How do you know?" I countered. "Ask them," he shrugged in response.

He was right. We can, and should, ask our kids how they're doing, what they're thinking and how they're feeling. This is a lot more effective than trying to guess, or project, these things onto them.

But the leap, the three words, the important part that glues our relationship together, is listening to their response, believing them, and therefore teaching them to trust and believe in themselves.

As adults, there are so many times we second-guess our own instincts. I think we do this because we're insecure that we might be wrong. That our answers and choices -- that we -- aren't right enough, smart enough, wise enough, to choose correctly. This internal messaging is strong and comes from somewhere external. I know this because the real truth is that no one knows you, or what you need, better than you do. And, like it or not, the same is true for our kids.

When my kids were little and Early Childhood classes were my lifelines -- time with other adults, other kids and kind teachers who shared what they knew -- I heard an expert (a nutritionist, a mother and a writer) speak about food and nutrition and how to mother both. Her main message was that if, when they're little, we let our kids tell us when they're full or have had enough to eat, they will solidify this skill and have the basis of the good portion size habits they'll need forever.

Having been raised with "just one more bites" and "clean plate clubs," we were all dubious. But her research and reasoning were sound: We all have to learn to listen to ourselves and we have to model this for our children by listening to them.

This theory didn't cover food choices. She was a firm believer that parents get to choose what kids eat and kids get to pick whether and how much. It was easy to see that listening to and believing in yourself were way more important life skills than eating "just five more peas."

Day-to-day life is filled with millions of chances to send this important message. Sometimes as parents, we'll choose to send different messages about safety and responsibility and health. But when we can, the one laced with trust is equally important and should be sent just as, if not more, often. It builds the confidence we all need.

I used this reasoning when I walked back over to my two and asked if they were doing OK. They paused and thought for a moment and gave an honest answer: They were a little bored, a little tired, but just fine. I chose to believe them. I didn't try to talk more or entertain more or change what they knew to be true. All I said was, "Good," and all I meant was, "I trust you."

And I use these three words to override the worries that creep into my mothering heart. When my daughter feels run down and wants to stay home from school, when she goes outside before starting her homework, when she stays up late reading, when she chooses to wear a t-shirt instead of the long-sleeved one I'm willing her to wear, I sometimes share my opinion, and I overrule her if her choice is harmful to her or others, but my main message, the three words I end with, are always, "I trust you."

When we trust our kids -- even if it means they end up making mistakes or falling or failing or freezing -- what we're really doing is giving them the freedom to trust in their own instincts, thoughts and selves. And this is a life skill worth learning and a three word parent-to-child message that binds rather than separates.

This post originally appeared on

Galit's book, Kindness Wins, is a simple no-nonsense guide to teaching our kids how to be kind online. Teaching our kids to trust their instincts plays a big role in this. Learn more here.

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