The best way for kids to obey isn’t by telling them “no” all the time, but to say “yes.” Here’s how to get kids to obey with positive language.
Our toddler is fascinated with tea, which my husband and I drink on a near-daily basis. He loves to peer into our cups to compare the ones with milk and the ones drank dark. And of course what kid can resist the swirl of steam rising from the cup?
But… as I’m sure to no one’s surprise, tea happens to be hot. Not exactly easy when a curious, rambunctious toddler is so eager to look.
At one point, he 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.
But then I added, “Put your hands on daddy’s knee so you can take a look.”
See the difference?
Apparently my toddler did. He placed his hands on his dad’s knee as my husband moved the cup for him to see at a distance.
Get kids to obey with positive language
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 (affiliate link).
Changing the language from “Don’t grab my arm” to “Put your hand on my knee” can make a huge difference. Rather than being told what not to do, kids instead are more likely to obey something more positive.
People respond and comply when asked using positive language instead of negative, kids included.
When you use positive language, you’re more likely to get your kids to obey. You can say, “Let’s walk to the door,” instead of “Don’t run to the door.” We don’t like hearing what not to do, but we’ll listen when the request is rephrased in a more positive action.
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Kids feel respected.
If your boss said, “Please don’t write your report like this,” you wouldn’t feel too good. It’s bad enough 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: their egos get a little bruised.
We don’t have to tiptoe over everything we say, but if we can phrase it in a more positive way, kids will feel less defensive. They don’t assume they must’ve done something wrong, and instead are simply going along with the plan.
By saying yes instead of no, you’re also more likely to see that your kids aren’t “misbehaving” to misbehave. They feel more curious or excited, or may not even be at the developmental stage we’re unfairly expecting them to be. My son wasn’t purposefully trying to spill a cup of tea—he was just curious about what’s in it.
Telling kids “no” all the time is double trouble. We tell them not to do something (“Don’t run,”), and they feel unfairly blamed for something they don’t even feel or know is wrong. (“I was just excited to go to the park!”)
In using positive language, we’re still honoring the impulse while laying down the rules. We’re able to teach without jumping the gun and assuming they’re misbehaving on purpose.
Their 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 you had spent hours crafting the report. That you felt so excited to receive feedback and actually liked what you’d done and couldn’t wait to do more.
But when someone tells you not to do something, you might not be as excited anymore. You’re not as curious or energetic like you started off with. They feel defensive, and smaller than when they started.
Kids are likely to wane in their own excitement as well. 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 makes her think throwing a ball isn’t all that great after all.
By keeping your language positive, you can still teach and model proper behavior without draining your child’s initial excitement.
All that said, I imagine we’ll still say no from time to time, particularly when we react to safety issues. While we can yell, “Slow down!” to our child about to run into the street, I’m betting most of us are going to say, “Don’t run!”
That explains why my husband had said, “Don’t grab the arm that’s holding the tea.” He was more concerned with our son’s safety than deciding the best way to phrase instruction. And even on “non-reactive” issues, I still find myself saying no. (“Don’t stand on the chair” instead of “Sit or kneel on the chair.” It happens, and sometimes for the better.)
But the more we use positive language, the more willingly our kids will comply. They’ll feel more respected when they don’t feel like they’re always in trouble. They also won’t lose their interest and zeal, something that can happen when we dampen their excitement with discipline.
And more important, we’re better able to see that our kids don’t usually misbehave on purpose, but are curious or excited. And we realize all this, just by say “yes” more often than “no.”
Get more tips on communicating with kids:
- Remember to Praise Your Child’s Positive Behavior
- How to Respond when Your Child Makes a Mistake
- How to Stop Nagging Your Child to Get Stuff Done
- Here’s How to Address Your Child’s Failures
- How to Properly Use Praise to Encourage Your Child’s Potential
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?
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