At one point, he had grabbed onto my husband’s arm, trying to catch a closer peek at the drink. “Don’t grab the arm that’s holding the tea,” my husband warned. I quickly followed up with, “LO, put your hands on daddy’s knee so you can take a look.”
See the difference?
Apparently my toddler did, and he obligingly placed his hands on his dad’s knee as my husband moved the cup closer to him, but at a much safer—and less spillable—distance.
This isn’t me boasting about my superior parental skills (ha!), but rather a lesson I learned from the book The Power of Positive Parenting by Glenn Latham. Among one of the many insights I learned was the tendency for people—children included—to respond and comply more willingly when asked to do something using positive language instead of negative.
When you use positive suggestions instead of negative limitations, you’re more likely to get your kids to obey. For instance, you can say, “Let’s walk to the door,” instead of “Don’t run to the door.” Because let’s face it: we don’t like to be told what not to do, but we’ll perhaps listen when the request is rephrased in a more positive action for two reasons:
- We feel respected. If you had a boss who simply said, “Please don’t write your report like this,” you’re probably going to feel all of two inches tall. It’s already bad enough that you have a boss you’re obligated to listen to, but now he’s telling you what you can’t do. Sound familiar? I imagine our kids might feel the same when we admonish and do the same to them: our egos get a little bruised.
- Our initial excitement won’t fizzle.Back to the work analogy where your boss just told you not to write the report a certain way. He also didn’t know that you had spent hours crafting the report, that you were so excited to receive feedback, and heck, you actually liked what you had done and couldn’t wait to do more. But when you’re told not to do something, you might not be as excited anymore, lessening the initial curiosity and energy you started off with. Kids are likely to wane in their own excitement as well. If your daughter was tossing a ball but happened to throw it a bit too hard from excitement, hearing others telling her not to throw the ball often enough might just make her think that this ball-throwing business isn’t all that great after all.
On that same note, one powerful side effect of saying yes instead of no is that often, kids aren’t “misbehaving” to misbehave. They’re probably more curious or excited, or may not even be at the developmental stage we’re unfairly expecting them to be. It’s double trouble for them: not only are they told not to do something (“Don’t run,”), they feel unfairly blamed for something they don’t even feel or know to be wrong (“I was just excited to go to the park!”). In rephrasing our language in a more positive light, we’re still honoring the impulse while laying down the law.
All that said, I imagine that we’ll still say no from time to time, particularly when we react to safety issues. For instance, while we can yell, “Slow down!” to our child who is about to run into the street, I’m willing to bet most of us are going to say, “Don’t run!” That probably explains why my husband had said, “Don’t grab the arm that’s holding the tea.” He was more concerned with not burning his two-year-old than deciding how best to phrase the instruction. And even on “non-reactive” issues, I still find myself saying no (“Don’t stand on the chair,”) instead of yes (“Sit or kneel on the chair”). It happens, and sometimes for the better.
In general though, I’ll bet that the more practice you have with changing your language to positive talk, the more willingly your kids will comply. They’ll feel more respected and won’t lose their interest and zeal, just by hearing yes instead of no.
Have you noticed a change in your kids’ willingness to obey depending on whether your words were positive or negative? How do you react to positive or negative commands and requests?