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Author Kelly Corrigan reveals the hardest thing she says to her kids

And why it's so important to be comfortable telling them 'I don't know.'
/ Source: TODAY

Acclaimed author and mom Kelly Corrigan has no shortage of beautiful words.

But when parenting her two teenage daughters, the 51-year-old is still learning some tough phrases.

In her book "Tell Me More" — out in paperback now — she examines the 12 hardest things she is learning to say. Some of those phrases, like "I was wrong," she began practicing when she was young and so caught up in her new independence and burgeoning career that she neglected to visit her dying grandmother as often as she should have. Others she developed more recently through the losses of one of her best friends, Liz Laats, to cancer and of her larger-than-life father and frequent muse, "Greenie."

With her oldest child, Georgia, heading to college in the fall and her youngest, Claire, just turning 16, Corrigan often finds herself — like many parents — grappling with what to say.

Here are the phrases that have changed her relationship with her kids.

"I don't know."

Too often, Corrigan said, we are afraid not to have an answer at the ready for our children's questions and problems. But by providing them with snap answers, we're not just limiting our children's growth and development — we might also be sending them the message that we are not truly listening to them.

"In our effort to soothe our kids with an immediate answer — often delivered with high conviction — we are perpetuating an intolerance for uncertainty that carries into adulthood," Corrigan told TODAY Parents.

She suggested establishing an "I don't know" household, where everybody is comfortable with the phrase. "If you were to raise your kids to be able to live with the answer, 'I don't know, let me think about that,' then you might help them introduce that critical pause between impulse and decision that could take them down different and better roads for the rest of their lives," she said.

Telling our children we don't know and that we want time to think about a problem they are having also conveys to them that we are committing to spending time thinking about the issue, said Corrigan. "That's flattering," she said, to a child.

"Tell me more."

One of her best college friends introduced Corrigan to using the phrase "tell me more" in her parenting, which allows her to give her children the chance to figure out their own problems instead of her trying to fix them.

What Corrigan had discovered about herself, she said, was that she was "understanding" her children too soon when they would bring her issues and complaints.

"They give me their headline, and I jump in and say, 'Yep, yep, I know exactly how you feel. This happened to me, and here's what I did, and I think it could work for you,'" she said.

"And they're thinking, 'You don't even really know what the problem is. You're giving me a diagnosis and a treatment plan for a problem I haven't even fully explained yet.'"

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That's why kids walk away from us and say, "You don't get it," said Corrigan, because we don't. By asking them to go on, to tell us more, to keep unraveling their stories and problems, our kids can often find and solve the central issues themselves.

"The beautiful thing about 'tell me more' is it gets you out of the fixing game, and you shouldn't be there anyway," said Corrigan. "It's not productive, it doesn't build self esteem, and you're often a little bit wrong. Being wrong is fundamentally binary: If you're a little bit wrong, you're wrong."

"Good enough."

Georgia, Corrigan's oldest daughter, just completed the college application process. With the current state of high-stakes college admissions, Corrigan felt lucky to be able to remind her daughter that she scored a 1090 SAT and was accepted to only one college after being rejected by her dream school, and yet, "I'm happy. I have a life I want."

The concept of learning to determine that we are "good enough" is important for our children, because so often, they think that every decision or outcome is permanent and set, Corrigan said.

"The thing about 'good enough' is that we tell our kids, 'That's where you are for now. You can't believe how much more is in front of you,'" she said.

"You think you are making decisions for the rest of your life. Nothing is for the rest of your life," she added. "The only permanent thing you ever do is become a parent. Everything else — even your marriage — is up for grabs forever, whether you choose to perceive it that way or not. It's amazing how much nothing is true for the rest of your life."

Letting our children know they are not setting themselves up for one permanent path, and they might have many roles and jobs in their lifetimes, can be encouraging, said Corrigan. "You send them the message, 'This is fine for now. One step at a time,'" she said.


The toughest thing for Corrigan to say to her daughters? No.

"Saying 'no' I just find extremely difficult. You can't believe the stuff I've said yes to," Corrigan admitted. "Not good stuff. My own mom's ability to say no and hold the line and possibly be hated for a full 24 hours is just more and more impressive to me as every day goes by."

Corrigan's empathy for her daughters at the ages of 16 and 18 is so strong, it makes it hard for her to be at odds with them, she said.

"I can remember it vividly. I can remember what I wanted and how badly I wanted it, and there's a part of me that just wants to give it to them."