Parents often focus their language on stopping behaviors. They attempt to direct their children in the negative. Let’s say a child grabs a toy from another. The first thing most parents say is “no grabbing,” “don’t grab,” or “stop grabbing!” When directions are stated in the negative, children have to turn that language around and figure out the opposite behavior. Parents are much more effective when they give positive directions such as “wait for a turn,” or “ask for a turn.”
It’s like if I were to say to you, “okay, are you listening? Stop sitting.” Likely, you hesitate. You might even ask, “does that mean you want me to stand?” It would be so much easier for you if I said, “okay, are you listening? Stand up.” That is an easy direction to follow because it is stated in the positive. You can do that right away.
It is near impossible for children under three years old to turn that language around and figure out the opposite behavior. We were at a local petting zoo recently when I overheard a mother clearly say to her two-year-old who was holding a cup of goat food, “now, don’t put that on the ground.” He gave her a confused look and slowly put the cup down on the ground. The mother was shocked that the child was doing the exact opposite of what she had just said. He was trying his best to follow directions. The child wasn’t able to turn the “don’t” around, so he did the best he could with the rest of it. He understood “put that on the ground.” It would have been better to give positive directions like, “hold on to that cup,” or, “keep that cup in your hands.”
When one child has a toy, and another child wants it, what is it that you want that child to do in that moment? Stated in the positive, you might want them to wait for a turn, ask for a turn, find something else to play with, find something to trade, come find mommy or ask for help. What if that child has already grabbed the desired toy? Stated in the positive, you might want them to give that back, drop that toy, apologize for taking it or hand it to mommy. There are lots of possible behaviors that are stated in the positive regarding grabbing toys. Each of these examples provides a solution to the problem.
There is also the golden rule of, “what you focus on you get more of.” When you say, “no grabbing,” or, “don’t grab,” or, “stop grabbing,” all of your language is focused on grabbing. The message to the child is; “grabbing gets attention.” By putting your attention here repeatedly, you may mildly be reinforcing that behavior to happen again.
If children are unable to turn the negative language around to figure out the opposite, you have left them with what is called a behavioral void. They know what not to do, but they have no idea what to do. So, a day later they want a toy that another child is playing with, they may hesitate when they remember your negatively stated direction, “don’t grab!” But, you have not replaced the behavior by teaching them what to do; instead, you have left them hanging for the next go around. When you state your directions in the positive you are filling in that void. If you repeatedly say, “ask for a turn,” while your child plays with others, you are filling in that void.
When a child is climbing on the book shelf, avoid saying, “no climbing,” or “don’t climb,” leaving them at a loss. Focus your language on the behavior you want by saying, “get off the shelf,” “keep your feet on the floor,” “stay down,” or “play over here.” Any of these are far more likely to work in the moment, and, with repetition, help to curb the behavior.
In Positive Discipline, Nelsen reinforces this idea by stating that solution focused language helps children to do better the next go around. It focuses children on what to do rather than what to stop doing. Once children are old enough, it can be beneficial to have them suggest solutions to ongoing problems. They are more likely to buy into the process if they are a part of it.