“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” – Peggy O’Mara
“No.” “Don’t.” “Stop!” The three most commonly used words in many parents’ vocabulary. When I first started paying attention to how much negative talk I was using with my children, I realized how easily it all slipped out. “Don’t run!” “Stop yelling!” “Don’t pull the dog’s tail!” They are logical things to say, but almost entirely ineffective in the long term. I found myself using the same “Nos,” “Don’ts” and “Stops” on a very regular rotation; for the very same problems. There had to be a better way.
Then I attended a training on the power of using “DO” statements. Same messages, delivered from a different perspective. Wouldn’t you know, the response was much better! Despite the natural inclination to use negatively framed commands, positively worded directions are much easier to understand. Instead of telling my children what NOT to do, I started telling them what TO do. “Walk!” “Use quieter voices.” “Be gentle with the dog, please.” Now, instead of igniting the mischievous joy of doing what they were just told not to, they receive a clear message of what is expected of them.
This type of language helps set people up for success. Studies have shown that kids do not start grasping the concept of opposites until age 4 or 5. With this in mind, it seems reasonable that all of our “don’t” statements can get a bit confusing. It will take a young child much longer to decode a negative instruction than it will for them to comply with a statement telling them exactly what to do. There are many alternatives to “not running.” And there are lots of ways to bother the dog’s tail without pulling on it. Telling them not to do something asks for a change in behavior. However, what it doesn’t do, is give an appropriate behavior in its place. “Don’t run” means “walk” to most adults. To my son, it meant skipping, jumping, twirling, or any number of other ways to move forward. To me, it was incredibly frustrating. To him, he was doing what I told him. He had stopped running.
When we equate this idea to our own lives, it makes even more sense. I can promise you that when I am told I cannot do something, I am all the more likely to want to do it anyway. And when I am bombarded with a list of negatives, I tend to tune out or start feeling defensive. Even worse, vague instructions. It will take me much longer to get anything done if there are not clear directions available to me. Kids are the same way. They just have a lot less practice with emotional awareness and control.
When I began practicing this idea at home, it was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I was so programmed with automatic negatives that I had to be very intentional and mindful of everything I said. It took time, but the results are worth it; and not just with my kids. I have found that flipping my perspective and using positive language has contributed to much more understanding and better connections with others in my life. Just as we say here at Educare, “We take care of ourselves. We take care of each other.” And this has been a helpful way to do just that.