I often think about what it’s like to be a child. There are so many rules and restrictions. Hearing ‘No’ and ‘Don’t’ continuously must be demotivating and demoralizing. If that’s how people spoke to me all the time, I’d start tuning out and shutting down. I can see how many people develop an inner dialog of “Why bother” or “I never do anything right” if all they heard growing up were negative messages. As parents, we have the power to choose how we say things to our kids. We can help them build confidence and competence simply by using different words. The challenge, of course, is how to change what we say to take advantage of the power of positive communication. Here are 3 ways I do it with my little people.
Say Yes More Than No
No one likes to hear “No” when they ask for something. It creates an adversarial position between two people. I want something and you said I can’t have/do it. When I was in Teacher’s College, I learned a great technique in my behaviour management class: You can say Yes to almost anything, even if the immediate answer is No by attaching a condition to the yes. For example:
“May I go to the bathroom?” “Yes, as soon as you’ve finished copying the notes from the board”
“Can we go for a bike ride?” “Absolutely, after you clean up your toys”
“May I have a new Lego set?” “Of course, once you’ve saved enough money for it”
“Can we read a story?” “Yes, right after you have your bath and brush your teeth”
The beauty of this technique is that it puts the power back into the other person’s hands.. They can have what they want as soon as the condition is met. Granted, there will be times that a swift and decisive No is required [as in “Mommy, can I have a sip of your wine?” Uhhhh, no.]. But I find that my children respond much better to the times I say No because they don’t feel like their requests are constantly being denied.
Focus On The Desired Behaviour
When I was in high school I spent one summer learning to water-ski and two summers teaching other people how to do it. I attribute much of my success as an instructor to one key lesson I learned from the person who originally taught me: Focus on what TO do rather than what NOT to do.
If you communicate the desired behaviour, that’s the only message the person has in their mind and they don’t even think about what they shouldn’t be doing. For example, when you’re learning to water-ski you have to keep your arms straight to help your body stay balanced. Rather than saying “Don’t bend your arms” I would say “Keep your arms straight”. That allowed the person to concentrate on what needed to happen as the boat pulled them out of the water. The same is true for children. When you want to see a specific behaviour, like sitting in a chair instead of standing, it’s better to say “Sit in the chair, please” rather than “Don’t stand in the chair”. My children love to run around so when we go out I remind them of our rules: “Only walking in the store” “Stay close to me” and “Ask before you touch anything”. By focusing on what I want them to do, it makes it easier for them to follow those rules.
Catch Them Doing Good
Notice I didn’t say ‘being’ good. I find the ‘be good’ mantra irritating. All children are inherently good. It’s their behaviour that sometimes isn’t, so let’s focus on that. One of the best ways to do it is to acknowledge when they ARE behaving the way you’d like:
“Oh wow! I just saw you share your snack with your sister. That was generous of you. I’m sure she really appreciates it.”
“Thank you for asking to use the scissors before you used them. It helps Mommy keep your fingers safe”
“High five, kiddo! You put your clothes in the laundry without me asking. That’s such a big help.”
When I provide feedback to my kids, I try to make it specific about the behaviour and the impact it has. This creates positive reinforcement to encourage them to repeat the behaviour in the future. It also helps them see why it’s beneficial to others which is the foundation of becoming an emotionally mature and responsible adult.
We all know that how we say things is just as important what we’re saying. That becomes even more true when we communicate with our children. It’s really easy to say no and focus on negative behaviours because they’re more obvious to us. Shifting to communicating in a more positive way does take some practice, but it’s worth the effort especially when you think about how much your kids will benefit from it in the long run.