Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Stop! No! Don't!

Today a friend and I hit up the Winnipeg Fringe Festival for a while.  We were meandering along the alleys of street vendors (may I just say that I don't like the way it's set up this year because Market Square is under construction (and has been for seemingly EONS...  come to think of it, I never see any one doing any work there....) so they're using Arthur and Albert for street vendors, instead).  We also enjoyed a gelati but that's not what I'm here to talk about today.  I overheard a few parents using negatives in their language with their children and it got me thinking that I actually hear it a lot.

"Stop fighting."
"No running."
"Don't touch that."
"Quit it!"
"Get out of there!"

You get the picture.  I'm not entirely innocent of saying some of these things myself and before I go any further I'll say that I have much understanding in my heart for the parent who is having a rough day so I always give people the benefit of the doubt and try not to judge.

With that said, I can't help but put myself in the child's shoes at times, though, too and think of what it must be like to live in their world of nos, cannots, don'ts and stop its.  So I've come up with a few thoughts I'd like to touch on regarding negative guidance.

1) Children Live in a Near-Constant State of Uncertainty
No decision is their own, the schedule revolves around adults' agendas with little to no regard for children's wishes or plans.  They are often not even informed of what's going to happen throughout the day or even what is happening at that very moment.  When we tell children what NOT to do all the time we add to their uncertainty and make them anxious.  When we empower them by showing and telling them what IS acceptable instead of what IS NOT  they gain a sense of security from knowing what they are able to do.

2) Children Are Always Learning and Experimenting
They are curious and driven to acquire knowledge and explore, trying new things, experimenting with their environments all the time (which is often why they "misbehave" in new situations - they are not inherently bad!  They are driven to test boundaries when unclear, like little scientists watching what mice do in a new maze, to see what happens).  The child longs for a sense of knowing what is desired of him, it's actually very stressful for children when they aren't sure what to do.  When we use negative language, telling our children what NOT to do, we leave a void.  The child is already upset - obviously they wanted to be doing what they were doing because they were doing it - so they feel slighted and, on top of it, are being forced to find something else to do, risking being told no again.

3) Social Mores and Generally Accepted Behaviours are Foreign to Children
As discussed, children feel more comfortable when they know what to expect (this is why Mr. Rogers is so popular - the kids know what's coming next) and what is expected of them.  In new situations, we can tend to assume our children understand rules we inherently know from years of experience, inadvertently setting our children up to fail.  For example, children don't understand that it's inappropriate to wander around the restaurant, talking to strangers, tasting other people's foods, exploring the kitchen and servery, etc.  This is where we come in as guides!  It's so important to arm our children with knowledge of the expectations beforehand and discussing the situation and expectations the day before, the day of and on the way there is a great way to help the child understand and remember.  I am often simultaneously pleased and disappointed, though, when I hear parents doing this with "Do nots" instead of "Dos".  I love seeing parents prepare their children for new situations but it's hard when I hear it all as nos and don'ts.  There's sort of an underlying sense that the parent assumes the child wants to exhibit all these negative behaviours as well as a message sent to the child that these are things s/he should want to do since they're being specifically forbidden.  When preparing your child for an outing to a new place, consider discussing what the place will be like and what will be expected in positive, absolute, group terms: "There will be lots of people talking in the restaurant."  "We stay in our seats in the restaurant."  "We talk quietly in the restaurant." (add the because at the end of each of those if appropriate for your child) "We'll each get to choose what we'd like to eat and have our very own plate to eat from!"

4) Children Think in Pictures
A baby is born with no words.  When they want something, it is only a feeling at first, growing over time into an image along with that feeling.  When a baby thinks about wanting an object on the other side of the room, she doesn't think in WORDS, she envisions the item in her hand or sees herself moving toward it to get it.  As the child grows and acquires more words, they become associated with pictures in their mind (we cement this with puzzles, pictures, matching games, etc.) so when we say, "No running!" the child SEES running in his mind.  "No" is pretty hard to make a picture of so it is abstract to the child.  The image of running is very compelling and running is fun!  Some children will immediately want to test a "no" boundary to see if you really meant it, too.  "Slow down." or, "Please walk." will create a much better picture of what you want your child to do.

5) It's Just Plain Nicer
Guiding our children can fast turn into a long string of criticisms in the daily grind if we're not careful.  On top of noticing our children's good traits whenever we can, we can also try to be more positive in our guidance.  When we use too much negative language our children can't help but eventually feel like they're doing everything wrong.  Positive direction or redirection can really help our children to feel like we're with them on their journey, cheerfully helping them learn what is appropriate without resentment or judgement (which is, after all, what we want them to feel like, right?!)  Remember, too, that negative reactions don't have to be quelled all together; saying, "Oh, yuck!  Rocks taste gross!  Let's keep them out of our mouths." will still discourage rock eating just as well or better than, "Don't eat rocks!"

I challenge you to watch your language over the next week or two, being mindful of how you phrase things with your child and try thinking of positive phrasings to replace the negative ones you find yourself using.  Then, implement them!   I have found that if I think creatively enough, there is no situation in which I have to be completely negative.  When we have to tell our children not to do something or when we've slipped up and used negative phrasing accidentally, it should immediately be followed with at least one or two suggestions for what they CAN do.  It will take a few weeks to get into the habit of positive phrasing and it may take your children a bit of time to get used to it, too but I truly believe you'll all feel better for it!


  1. you know, when i tell my 10 month old "don't go over there please" she doesn't really listen, but when i say "come over here please" she listens much better. :) I guess she's complying with everything i say, but only the "over there" "over here" part :)

  2. Exactly, Jillian! Babies and toddlers especially mostly only listening to the subject words when we speak to them (because those are usually nouns and usually the stressed words in sentences). Another great way to check yourself is to see what comes across if you isolate only the nouns and verbs.

  3. When I read this I think "DUH it makes perfect sense." Thank you so much for posting. I am going to consciously do this with my 8 year old!!!!

    1. It makes me so happy to hear parents of older children willing to be mindful and change things! Cudos to you!!!


Keep it clean, guys.