Stop spending your days saying, “No…don’t”

“I feel like all I do is say, ‘No.  Don’t do that.’”  I have heard that statement from weary parents so often.  As much as you know that you have to teach your children and keep them safe, it is hard to spend every day feeling so negative.  We certainly don’t want our children to think of us as the people who only say “no” and “don’t.”  Early in my career, I worked in an early childhood center where the use of the word “no” was forbidden.  I thought it was insane at the time but, actually, it taught me a great deal about how to instruct children.

Discipline should be instructive and phrasing requests or commands in the negative teaches the wrong lesson.  Not only is it less than productive, it doesn’t relate to the thought processes of young children.  When a young child reaches for something and we say, “No.  Don’t touch that!” we are asking the child to reverse an action.  That is a multi-step directive.  The developmental goal for an average 4 year old is the ability to follow a 3 step process.  Think about how many steps are required for “No.  Don’t touch that!”   At a minimum, the child has to (1) resist an impulse, (2) stop moving, (3) consider what to do with the outstretched arm, and (4) pull the arm back.

Why does your child continue to reach for the outlet when you say to stop?  Two reasons – your child cannot resist strong impulses because the frontal lobe of the brain is still developing and your child cannot process all of the steps of a negative command.  It’s that simple.  Your child cannot.

When we remember that discipline is simply another thing we have to teach, we can consider a better way to address the children who cannot.  Let’s use the outlet scenario without the impossible negative command.  Your child reaches for the outlet.  Instead of saying what not to do, tell your child what to do.  What do you want your child to do when reaching for the outlet?  You want your child to “Put your hand down.”  Simple.  No reversing required.  The urgency in your voice will, hopefully, supersede the impulse and signal your child that there is danger.

It is also important to remember that yelling is counterproductive.  Yelling teaches children that In order to solve a problem, you must become emotional and angry.  They learn that the only way to respond to a situation you don’t like is to become loud and negative. Yelling demonstrates that it is acceptable to yell at people who you are smaller than you.  When there is a lot of yelling at home, we see it at school.  Children who are yelled at yell at others.  Parents who were yelled at tend to be yellers.  I applaud those parents who make a conscious decision to speak to their children with more respect than they were spoken to as children.  Sometimes, there is an urgent safety concern and our immediate response is to raise our voices to get the children’s attention.  It is even instructive to say to your child, “I’m sorry I yelled.  I was afraid for your safety.”  Everyday discipline, when no one is in danger, requires no yelling at all.

Tell your children what you want them to do in a tone of voice that demonstrates that you are serious but not emotionally out of control.  All those years in the “no is forbidden zone” taught me this – “Please put the brush down.”  “Walk indoors.”  “Stay on the curb.” “Crayons are used on paper.” “Use quiet voices.” “Be kind.” – all said with respect and followed by an explanation of why we don’t grab, run, go into the street, write on the wall, scream or act with meanness.

Think about the negative commands that you seem to give over and over again.  Turn them around.  Enter the “no negative words zone.”  Think about what positive action you want your child to do.  You may have to repeat those requests many times but you teach your children so much more by being direct and positive.

Reposted with permission from