Got “No!”? Two Doesn’t Have to be Terrible

Have you ever been in a situation where you were completely bewildered by what was happening – and then someone explained why?  And then the behavior made a little more sense?

Last Fall I had just such an experience.  My middle school son showed up ready to head out the door to school in shorts.  He’d been wearing shorts since September. But lately, the overnight temperatures had been consistently low.  On this particular morning, it was 42 degrees outside.

I told him it was cold and he needed long pants.  He insisted he would be fine. I insisted he needed to change.  As he dug in his heels, I responded with consequences if he didn’t go put on long pants.  Finally, relenting, I offered to let it go if he’d explain why he thought shorts were fine on this cold morning.

He sat sullenly on the couch, neither moving nor explaining.  After a few more motherly hysterics (yet maddeningly powerless), he finally said quietly, “I can’t wear long pants to gym.”  “You can change into shorts in the locker room,” I replied. Even more quietly he responded, “I don’t want to have to change.”

My eyes were opened.  Here sat a newly minted adolescent – reluctant to undress in front of his peers.  It was suddenly crystal clear why he would rather be cold at the bus stop than change into long pants.  My heart swelled for him and the new territory he was navigating as he moved from child to young adult. (A topic for another blog post. Hint: 12 is 2 all over again.)

“Thank you for explaining,” I answered.  “Now that I understand where you are coming from, I won’t insist you change.”  I finished up with an apology. “I’m sorry – hope your day at school is better than the last 10 minutes have been.”  I hugged him and he trooped out the door. In shorts.

The bewilderment I experienced that morning will be familiar to parents of toddlers in the age of ‘No!”.  Where does this sudden refusal to cooperate come from?

A baby’s brain is one-quarter of the size of an adult brain.  But in the first year of life, it will double in size. By the time the child is three, their brain will be 80% of its adult size.  During that journey from birth to age three, the helpless, completely dependent newborn will transform into an autonomous young child.

Right in the middle of that transformation are the “terrible twos”.  That period of time when ‘no’ is their favorite word. Dr. Maria Montessori, a pioneer of experience-based early childhood education, called this stage of development a progression from the unconscious mind to the conscious mind.  “Unconscious” because they begin unaware of their own participation in the learning process, but as they become “conscious”, they arrive fully aware of themselves as independent, thinking, and learning beings.

They discover they can have a thought about something that is different from their caregiver’s thoughts.  They can even have their own opinion – one that might be contrary to the adult’s opinion. They test their new understanding with practice.  Lots and lots of practice. Which means lots of “No!”.

Adults have been frustrated by this phase of child development for so long it bears the label “Terrible Twos”.  But understanding that the “No!” is coming from a new awareness of their own ability to choose can help. When parenting a child in this phase of development, encouraging the choice can help encourage cooperation.

Maintain calm authority.  Children growing in awareness can also be uncertain.  Caregivers reassure them that they are safe and will be cared for by using a tone of voice that is confident and supportive.  Try to avoid sounding angry, even as they try your patience. Use your words to help them understand what you need them to do.  “Oh I see you are not happy about having to put your boots on now. We can’t leave until the boots are on.”

Offer them a choice between two things – but only 2 things.  More than two can overwhelm the child.  My favorite choice is: “Would you like to put the boots on all by yourself, or would you like me to help?”  Countless times I found that when offering the choice between doing it themselves or having my help, their desire to be independent spurred them to action.  They much preferred doing it themselves than having help. But be prepared to be patient and take the time to wait when they choose to do it themselves. Help with any hard part, but don’t rob them of the satisfaction of accomplishing the task independently.

Another option is the choice between first and next.   “Do you want your coat before your boots – or boots first?” also changes the request by providing the child the opportunity to decide.

Notice that we can give them an alternative to their assumption that the choice is “do it” or “don’t do it”.

Change the subject as you proceed to help them cooperate.  “Oh look, I found a fuzzy scarf in the closet.”  Handing them the scarf, begin putting boots on to their feet.  Calling their attention to something else helps them move past the defiance and onto a new emotion.

And finally, mission accomplished, be sure to begin a new conversation as you move onto the next activity.  “Now that we have our boots on, let’s go!  We are going to walk around the block – let’s look for birds as we walk.”

Sometimes you can choose from among these strategies.  Sometimes you will work your way through all of them in succession –  and still face opposition from your toddler. Once you’ve exhausted all efforts at cooperation, just remember you’re the parent.  Lovingly, but firmly, complete the task and move on.

In moments where no amount of encouragement succeeds, doing it for them without further comment on the matter helps the child disengage from the struggle.  With the child in my lap and boot in hand, I would begin a conversation about something entirely unrelated to the boots. “Look, you have your green sweater on.  It matches your green raincoat.” More often than not, their attention is drawn to the next thing by a change of subject. And the protest is forgotten.

Yes, they are now old enough to have their own opinion, but the ‘terrible two’ is also amazingly more verbal.  Listening, answering, and participating in a conversation will very often draw their attention away from the ‘no’.

And rest assured, this stage will not last forever.

Parenting Styles: Between the Brick Wall and the Jellyfish

As we experience the rise of authoritarian regimes around the world, please read carefully as I suggest that what we need is more authoritative ones.

That suffix makes all the difference, even according to Google’s dictionary function:

An authoritarian is one who goes around “favoring or enforcing strict obedience to authority, especially that of the government, at the expense of personal freedom.”

One who is authoritative, on the other hand, is “commanding and self-confident; likely to be respected and obeyed.”

These are also, as you may know, two of the three parenting styles identified by psychologist Diana Baumrind back in the 1960s.

As venerable as they are, Baumrind’s observations are still widely cited in research today. They break down as follows:

The Authoritarian, or Brick Wall, parent works from a model of rules and convictions to which the child is expected to conform. Because children (much like adults) are all different and have changing needs and temperaments, this does not tend to work very well. Therefore, the Authoritarian parent is compelled to use punishment and force to make it happen. This parent wants obedience and respect, and while the application of “power over” others can generate the former, at least in the short term, the future relationship will hold disillusionment, resentment, and possibly trauma.

The Permissive parent, therefore, moves as far from this model as possible, at the cost of providing too little structure and guidance. The child’s response to this Jellyfish parent is that she hungers for limits and healthy boundaries and has no one able to guide them through the vicissitudes of growing up. This is problematic enough; in addition, though, when the chips are down the Jellyfish will often snap, in a panic, into Brick Wall mode.

The healthy middle way is undertaken by the Authoritative parent. Unlike the Permissive parent, they have clear rules and limits and are willing to hold them; unlike the Authoritarian, they are sensitive to the cues and adaptive to the needs of the child as they present themselves. The Authoritarian provides choices when appropriate and sets limits when needed. They also “encourage verbal give and take, share with the child the reasoning behind her policy, and solicits his objections when he refuses to conform. Both autonomous self-will and disciplined conformity are valued.”

The Authoritative parent is like a spine: firm, strong, and upright, yet flexible. I urge you to stand with other vertebrate parents in their important work.

How Not to Disappear Completely

In the great film Winter’s Bone, a girl (played by a pre-Katniss Jennifer Lawrence), is desperately trying to pass on her knowledge of hunting, food preparation, and other basic survival skills to her siblings. She is feeling the pressure because, having lost both of their parents, she suspects that her investigation into the disappearance of her criminal father may well get her killed.

I am mostly telling you about this movie because you really need to see it (seriously). But it also paints in bold dramatic terms an example of parentification, which can be defined as “the process through which children are assigned the role of an adult, taking on both emotional and functional responsibilities that typically are performed by the parent.”

A recent article in The Atlantic highlights in similarly stark terms the long-term negative effects of parentification on children: “a form of emotional abuse or neglect where a child becomes the caregiver to their parent or sibling. Researchers are increasingly finding that in addition to upending a child’s development, this role reversal can leave deep emotional scars well into adulthood. Many […] experience severe anxiety, depression, and psychological distress. Others report succumbing to eating disorders and substance abuse.”

Put simply, the experience of having to step into a caretaking role as a child can disrupt and even displace the normal course of development. In our culture, we have terms for this: a child may have “grown-up too fast.” We should therefore “let kids be kids.” Right?

But the situations described above are extreme. As with most things, there is a large middle ground from which we can still see the line no matter which side of it we’re on right now. Parentification happens when a child undertakes a role for which she is not yet ready, specifically taking on responsibility for another’s care or well-being.

Hold on there, cowboy. Isn’t there an appropriate time and place for kids to take on responsibility for others?

Of course! There are ways to know when they are ready. Though laws vary from place to place, generally speaking, your child is ready to babysit his siblings around the age of 12. This is assuming that they have willingly, and successfully, practiced this with your proximity and/or partial supervision. Does the child know what to do in case of emergency? How to contact you if you’re not home? How to call emergency services? Who is a safe neighbor? Where are the band-aids?

The key, I think, is that you and the child are both confident in their readiness to care for others. Be sure that you give clear parameters regarding where you are and for how long; what is expected of them and what is not. If this is a regular situation or something that comes up repeatedly without warning, it is probably time to involve another adult (family or a trusted professional).

In the meantime, try not to disappear.

 

Screens Revisited

It’s time to raise my quarterly alarm about the effects of screen time on children. Don’t worry, I’ve already laid the basic foundation of ranting, so I won’t get into that here.  Moreover, I have offered up an alternative use for a smartphone or pad that will allow you to make dinner unhindered while eliminating the perils of the screen (ie: cover it up and let it talk).

Well, it’s time to be alarmist again. New research as presented by psychologist Sue Palmer supports previous warnings about “links between excessive screen-time and obesity, sleep disorders, aggression, poor social skills, depression, and academic under-achievement.” Along with this, “a rise in prescriptions for Ritalin, a drug for attention deficit and hyperactivity – a four-fold increase in less than a decade.”

So much, so familiar (at least, I hope it’s familiar: enough so that parents would not put their child/toddler/oh-my-gosh infant to bed with a tablet). But here’s what I found interesting about this particular article.

Writes Palmer, “It’s not just what children get up to onscreen that affects their overall development. It’s what screens displace – all the activities they’re not doing in the real world.” In other words, if they’re swiping a screen they’re not interacting with others. They’re not looking around at the inscrutable people and things around them. They’re not experiencing (take a deep breath) boredom, that charmed state that has led, historically, to all the great artistic and scientific breakthroughs (and not a few of its greatest crimes).

In other words, if your small children are captivated by and absorbed in the screen in front of them (we know how that works, don’t we, fellow addicts?), then they are missing out on all the perception, interaction, and processing that makes a brain grow, and that prompts them to seek out new information and challenges in the world.

Perhaps most important of all, they’re missing out on that most essential element in child development: play.

Writes Palmer, “Each time babies or toddlers make something happen on screen, they get the same sort of pleasure hit as they would from a cuddle or a splash in the bath. When they can get instant rewards by swiping a screen, why bother with play that demands physical, social, and cognitive effort?”

I recently picked up a used copy of Neil Postman’s classic work of cultural critique, Amusing Ourselves to Death. I saw that it was published in 1985, long before civilian use of email, and looong before social media, search engines and streaming claimed victory over the 21st Century human cortex. Postman’s dire prognostications about the melding of public life and entertainment technology are becoming more relevant by the second. Not bad for a grumpy old cuss.

At the risk of sharing in the general grumpiness, I imagine that our children will be at least as resentful of our current compulsive phone-gazing behavior as previous generations were about growing up with the TV as the altar of the house. Let me just raise my hand right now.

Guilty!

I can’t wait to hear what they have to say.

Three Scenes

Here’s a specific problem that has been coming up for me lately, at work and at home. I thought I’d find out more about it and share it with you.

Close your eyes and take a journey with me. You are in a room. A clean, well-lighted place. You are calm and relaxed. Take a few breaths in and out. Good. Now, open your eyes.

Before you is a child. Your child. The child is rolling her eyes in disbelief that you have just expected her to do something that you regard as perfectly reasonable. She intends to ignore you and go on with what she was doing before.

Close your eyes. Take another breath. Now open them.

Now your child is throwing his younger brother’s half-constructed Attack of the Clones Lego playset down the stairs. When you ask him why he has done this, he explains that his brother was being, and in fact, is a “butt.”

Close your eyes. Feel around for the ibuprofen in the medicine cabinet. Take two and be sure to drink a whole glass of water. Open your eyes.

Now your child, as you watch, is saying “$@%#.” You are positive that you have heard the word crisply and clearly and have watched the precise mouth movements required to form the word. When you ask the child to repeat the word, she insists that she was using the euphemistic spelling employed by Norman Mailer in his WWII novel The Naked and the Dead.  You do not believe her (though I also made a Hemingway reference in this post. Can you spot it?).

Oh, boy. We’re done. Come back to your body and shake yourself out.

These children are engaging in what is known by scientists as disrespectful behavior. Now, you might be asking, “Where did they learn this kind of thing?” The answer is a.) You, b.) Their peers, c.) Their uncle Steve, d.) YouTube, e.) It doesn’t matter. The answer is e.)

There are some definite do’s and don’ts in common to these scenes:

  • Stay calm. Do not respond with the kind of words or behavior they are presenting to you.
  • Ignore provocation. Do not be drawn into a power struggle, which is exactly what will happen if you attempt to assert your power right now. Walk away if you have to.
  • Speak your expectations clearly. “I don’t want to hear that kind of language.” “I expect you to listen when I give you a direction.” Stick to it but don’t feel you need to explain or defend it. Don’t negotiate.
  • Give encouragement when you see or hear things you like.
  • Spend some time with them. Let the relationship do the repairing.

Now. What was the child feeling? Probably frustration and a need for power. Now that everyone is calm, you can work with your child on ways to have (age-appropriate) input into rules and routines in order to feel more in control. Can you arrange for him and his brother to have separate playtime? Can she choose when she does her chores, with the promise of an activity she enjoys at the end (or even while she does the work; music, an audiobook)? Can she practice deep breathing with you so she can learn to express her feelings appropriately?

Alright. Now close your eyes again. And have a nice long nap.

 

 

 

 

Kids Hitting Kids

As you know, occasionally I like to delve into an internet search (well, it’s not really delving, per se, since it takes three microns of a second) on a parenting topic. This time it’s something that’s been coming up in my work with families: namely, siblings wailin’ on each other. Parents have been asking me what to do in this situation, and as all parties (including the kids) agreed that it wasn’t a good thing to hit each other, we were at a bit of an impasse.

So here goes. One of the first articles to come up, at least in my info bubble, was kinda preachy and alarmist: the title says it all. Aside from pointing out in no uncertain terms that it is bad for people to hit each other (we’re in! We bought a ticket!), we’d like to know how to get to the bottom of it. How do we help our kids to try something else next time?

The next one was very promising. It focused on how to talk to siblings about hitting when one is able to express himself in words and the other is not. It was written by an extreme parenting genius with perfect recall of a 15-minute conversation (did the author transcribe it from tape? Does she have a dictation team?) She makes sure both of the kids are able to talk and able to listen to each other. Which is really what they wanted in the first place.

Because, say it with me, “all behavior is an unmet need.”

Which is one of the 31(!) tips featured in this list which turned out to be the winner of the parenting internet this week. Note the first one: “Remember that this is normal,” and note as well that this makes it the complete opposite of what the first article said. Maybe it’s useful to tease out the meaning here.

By “normal,” I think we’re saying both that it’s “something that happens” and that “the world does not end when it does.” The children do not explode (unless they are actually attaching explosives to one another, in which case it’s a more serious problem than this post can address), and one presumes that the hitting is not so frequent and vicious as to spill over into something else, which is called abuse, no matter who’s doing it to whom. Again, different blog post.

The fact is, though, when children are siblings (or in the same classroom, or sharing playground equipment, etc, etc), sometimes they whack each other. What does it mean? In almost every case, it’s frustration, tiredness, hunger, or some combination thereof (“It’s an unmet need.” Everybody, now).

What do we do about it? That’s where it gets tricky, and where the author is smart enough to not give a straight answer. Or at least, not a single answer. What I like is that she wants us to mostly look at ourselves. Should we interfere? If we do, are we actually just performing for the other parents in the room? Are we bringing our frustration into it? Are we blaming (this time or every time) one child or the other?

One of the answers is “do nothing.” I love when people give that advice. What if they can work it out? Isn’t that a skill?

Another is “make sure they have their own toys.” If they have things that they don’t have to share, there are no grounds for disagreement. Also, “don’t make toddlers share.” Word.

Also, too, “take them outside.” In my work that sometimes means to literally take them outside (we have swings, and a lovely meadow), but more generally it means that we need to change the environment. Move to a new place, find a new activity, and take the energy up or down. Make it different.

Who knew there were so many things we could do about it? Come on kids. Bring it on.

The “No”s Have It

 

“My name is ‘no’ 

My sign is ‘no’

My number is ‘no’

You need to let it go”

::Meghan Trainor

You may have noticed that “no” is a go-to word for children. Aand that they pick it up pretty early on. Once they start as toddlers, they will use it for all it’s worth. This makes sense, according to Judy Arnall in her book Discipline Without Distress. She writes:

“A toddler’s favorite word is ‘no.’ It is a strong, powerful, in-control word. It sounds decisive, meaningful, and packs a punch.”

A parent’s first impression—and this impression may last, if you’re not careful—is that the child is out to undermine your authority and defy you. You might feel a lack of respect.

In fact, it’s rather the opposite (as we will get into below). It is important to remember that this is a natural and nearly universal behavior. Arnall goes on to say that when a toddler says “no”:

  • They need to assert independence and they need to achieve a measure of control over their lives.
  • They need to begin separating when secure and clinging when insecure.
  • They need to explore and discover.
  • They need to express their strong emotions.”

Essentially, “no” is standing in for a whole lot of words the child doesn’t yet have. According to the author,

“When a toddler says ‘no!’ they mean:

  • I want to do it myself.
  • I don’t want you, but I want you. I am overwhelmed by conflicting feelings.
  • I don’t know what I’m feeling, but I’m feeling it right now!
  • I can’t share because I don’t understand the concept of ownership yet.
  • I want to have some control over what happens to me.”

It should be easy to guess where a child’s mastery of “no” comes from. Most likely they have felt its power coming from us, the parents. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, authors of the excellent book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, explain:

“There will be many times as parents when we’ll have to thwart our children’s desires. Yet some children experience a blunt ‘No’ as a call to arms, a direct attack upon their autonomy. They mobilize all their energy to counterattack.”

Sounds suspiciously like the way we feel when we hear the word from our child’s mouth, doesn’t it? One way to manage their overreliance on the word “no,” then, is to try to lessen it in our own speech. Faber & Mazlish provide some alternatives to falling back on “No” as a way of managing behavior. They are listed below (examples in parentheses are mine):

  • Give information (instead of saying “No” when a child wants to keep playing at mealtime, say “We’re having dinner in five minutes”).
  • Accept feelings (“It’s hard to stop playing when you’re not ready”).
  • Describe the problem (“I’d like for you to keep playing. We have to be at your grandma’s house in an hour”).
  • When possible substitute a “Yes” for a “No” (“Yes, you can keep playing when we come back. I will give you special time for it”).
  • Give yourself time to think (“Let me think about that”).

“No” will always be a powerful word, and as parents, we want to keep it that way. When there is an immediate safety concern, we will use it instinctually, and if we haven’t already said it a dozen times this afternoon it will be even more effective. Also, as the child gets older we want “No” to mean exactly what it says: that we want a behavior or situation to stop, right now.

Reading Ahead

I’m about to come across as not only a curmudgeon, but a hypocrite. Let me explain.

I learned to read quite early. I credit the constant presence of books and, of course, Sesame Street for helping me along with this. And as soon as I could I started reaching for books that were way beyond my emotional maturity. I may have been able to read, as an eight-year-old, my dad’s James Bond and Conan novels, but I was not able to process them. This trend continued as I grew up, with the result that I had “book knowledge” of the adult realm of drugs, sex, and the intricacies of suffering that I was in no way prepared to live in reality. If I always felt that I was getting away with something, it’s because I was. Only in later years—and especially now that I’m a parent—did I realize that, rather than gaining something from my transgressions, I actually gave up a fair bit of my childhood.

Things are different now after the explosion of what is now called Young Adult literature, or YA. Spurred on by the success of the (wonderful) Harry Potter novels, the category of books featuring adolescent protagonists, largely under the umbrella of science fiction, horror and fantasy but sometimes taking in historical fiction or even stark realism, increased exponentially. As with most styles in popular art, some of it is brilliant, much of it quite good, and most mediocre to awful (this is not the place for me to weigh in on the relative merits of YA books you have probably heard of and/or read).

The new thing about this, and something I have been noticing more and more, is how often younger readers have been encouraged to pick up YA books under the assumption that, since they are not adult books, it is always a good idea for kids to read them. But more than ever before, there is such a wide spectrum of psychological and emotional content, relationship, and identity issues in YA literature that it is risky to assume that a given book is appropriate for your young reader simply because of the section of the library or bookstore it was found in.

Let me be clear: the concern here is not that there are books that address all of these things, or that kids may benefit greatly from finding them portrayed in fiction because both of these are, I think, very good things. The issue is that readers who may be intellectually, but not emotionally, ready to take on a particular subject matter will at best not get anything out of it (as I came up empty with the adventures of James Bond) and come away with confusion or misunderstanding, and at worst could be traumatized. Heck, even the Harry Potter series becomes increasingly dark and emotionally complex as its characters age toward adulthood.

As a result, it’s more important than ever for parents to be aware of what their children are reading. There are summaries and reviews online for every book that’s out there, though this can be overwhelming if you don’t know where to look (in my experience nothing is more full of contradictions than two reviews of the same novel). A reliable place for this information is Common Sense Media, a website offering “independent reviews, age ratings, & other information about all types of media.”

Another great way to find out about what our kids are taking in is much more low tech. You can take a look at the book, of course: read the jacket copy and see if there is a recommended age range. Skim it if you can. Or better yet, talk to them about it!

One Love

I’ve been thinking a lot about one-year-olds. I haven’t had one at home for a few years now, but at work, I seem to be surrounded by them. I don’t mind.

The one-year-old comes with a unique set of bonuses and challenges. The bonuses are so great it’s as if it’s your birthday whenever they’re around. They love to laugh, and it’s easy for you to be the funniest person they’ve ever met. They are working on their words and are delighted to share them with you. Walking, jumping, throwing things: these are great discoveries, and the one-year-old acts as if they’re the first one to get there and plant a flag.

The challenges, as with children of all ages, are a matter of timing. I know many well-intentioned parents who want to create structure and set boundaries who become frustrated when this doesn’t seem to be working. Here’s how it breaks down.

There are some things that a one-year-old is just not ready to grasp at this point:

  • “No” and “don’t.” I have written about this elsewhere; how there are usually more effective ways to set limits. For the one-year-old in particular, they simply don’t know what it means. Saying “no” in a firm voice will often stop them in their tracks, but this is because they know that the parent is displeased. They are not able to make a connection between the “no” and the behavior in question. Cause and effect are not yet part of the wiring.
  • As for directions such as “Don’t drop that applesauce,” The one-year-old, scanning madly for meaning in your words, will catch “drop” and “applesauce” and will hear it either as an instruction (after all, testing gravity is a favorite activity at this age) or will simply be confused.
  • Positive directions have a much better chance of getting through. Putting out your hand and saying “Give me the applesauce” may get us to where we want to go, with at least a smaller percentage of applesauce on the floor.
  • Your rules. Parents are eager to articulate the rules of the family, laying out what is acceptable and what is not. But in the present moment of the toddler mind, rules (and their exceptions, because there are always exceptions) are too abstract to take root. So what works? Repetition, repetition, repetition. Give the same instruction enough times in context and eventually, it will stick. Remember to keep stating, and praising, the behavior that you want to see.
  • What does work with a one-year-old? Distraction will be your best friend. Trading out one toy or object for another, or simply changing tracks with a song, or a hug, or a funny noise, will reset the situation.
  • Ready to leave the house? Calling the toddler to put their shoes on will look to a bystander like absurdist theater. Going to the toddler with the shoes is a better bet. And actually walking to the door is a pretty clear indicator that it’s time to go. One-year-olds love to go in and out of rooms. You might want to let them close the door.

The “No/Don’t” Problem

There is something that comes up a lot in my work as a parenting educator. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is something that also comes up a lot in my work as a parent. I call it the “No/Don’t” statement.

You can guess what it sounds like. A child is grabbing something (your phone, the edge of the tablecloth, a sibling’s toy) and you say, “No!” Or alternately, “Don’t do that.” Or alternately, “Stop!” Sometimes it takes on extra dimensions, such as, “How many times have I told you not to do that?” You might even provide an answer to the question, giving a possibly spurious and invariable round number: “I have told you a hundred thousand times not to do that.”

Having fallen into this rut, again and again, myself, I believe that it is a response that comes fairly naturally to us. Just as every kid I’ve ever met will walk straight into the path of someone who is swinging, so every parent defaults to the negative when attempting to teach proper behavior to a child.

So what’s wrong with that? Are there occasions in which it is perfectly appropriate, or at least when it will do in a pinch? I can think of a few. When your child is about to walk into traffic, yelling “STOP!” with startling volume is probably the way to go (the nuances of why can come later when the child is out of danger). Similarly, if the child is currently holding the cat upside down by the tail, “Don’t do that to the cat!” may be the way to go, and will certainly be appreciated by the cat.

As a general practice, though, the “No/Don’t” statement runs into problems when we look at how we can teach things to our kids. Here are a couple of points (I’m sure there are other good ones as well).

  • Specificity. Younger children especially may not be ready to place actions, causes, and effects into different contexts. So, knowing to not grab, say, the doll stroller from a sister in this instance may not translate to the time five minutes from now in which the sister is still playing with the stroller and you still want it. Or taking the book out of her hand tomorrow because a book is nothing like a doll stroller. Here we get into philosophical conundrums as parents that we probably frankly don’t have time to go into.
  • Negativity. By this I don’t mean that it’s bad or wrong to say “no,” but simply that children respond better when we describe the behavior we do want to see rather than negate behavior we don’t. In other words, if we can help the child to see what it is we want, they are much more likely to accomplish it. “Put the cat down” is a start. That’s an action. They can do that. Then, “Pet him like this. He likes that. There. Nice kitty,” etc. Or, “Let’s make a sling for your doll so you can take her for a walk.” Or even, “See if your sister will trade the doll stroller for this toy.”

I have found that the extra work we put into describing what we want to see or providing a positive alternative, is almost always worth it. And as a bonus, the child has learned something. Just as importantly, they are able to accomplish something. Kids want to be helpful, after all. They want to do the right thing. It’s so nice to give them the opportunity.