“Stop it. No. Don’t do that.” As soon as children can begin to make their own choices, these are the words parents seem to use most often. Yet, how would the conversation feel if you couldn’t use them? What if rather than telling your child what NOT to do, you told them what they CAN DO? It’s a small, but powerful switch to the tone and spirit of your conversation.
Children respond with fewer tantrums, whining or other challenging behavior. They respond because young children cannot make the connection that when you tell them not to do something, you want them to do the opposite. For example, “Don’t climb on the counter” can be very confusing and discouraging to a child. They don’t change their behavior because they don’t know how. Yet, “Please keep your feet on the floor” tells your child exactly what your expectations are and how they can change what they are doing. It also empowers children to make an appropriate choice on their own and gives them a healthy self-esteem. Telling children what they can do and when they can do it feels like a win to your child and they are more likely to cooperate with the request.
- Replace DON’T with DO. Tell your child what they can do! If you saw your child cutting the leaves of a plant, rather than say “Don’t cut that!” you could say “Scissors are for cutting paper or play dough. Which one do you want to cut?” By helping children understand what the appropriate choices are, they can make them.
- Offer a choice. By offering a choice of things that your child can do, wear or go to, children are more likely to do what you have offered because they feel like they are in control. And as a parent, you feel happy because you approve of either choice.
- Tell them when. When your child asks to do something, rather than saying no, acknowledge their wish and tell them when they might be able to do something. That feels like a “yes” to a child. For example, if your child asks to go to the park, but you are on the computer finishing up a work project, you could say “The park sounds like a great idea! I need to finish this letter for work right now. Would you like to go after your nap today or tomorrow morning after breakfast?”
- Use first-then language. Another way to tell a child when they can do something in a positive way is to use a first-then statement. For example, if your child wants to watch tv but you would like them to pick up the toys, you could say “First pick up your toys and then you may watch a tv show.”
- Give your child time to think. Sometimes parents feel frustrated when children do not respond quickly to requests. They scrap the positive language and return to using demands and raising their voice. Remember that children are not only learning a new language and how to use it, but they need time to think about what you said and how they are going to respond. It takes them several seconds or minutes longer than it does you. Parents who remain calm and patiently repeat the statement again will see fewer challenging behaviors and enjoy spending time with their children.
- Help them remember. Children are easily distracted. Sometimes they need an adults help to remember what you asked or what the expected behavior was in order to do it. “I remember” statements are very useful in these situations. For example, you have asked your child to get her shoes so that you can go outside. She comes over to you without her shoes and is trying to go outside. You can say “I remember you need your shoes on before we can go outside.” Phrasing it as a statement rather than a command does not blame the child or make them feel like a failure, but rather empowers them with information to make the right choice on their own.