- No hitting!
- No yelling!
- Stop playing with your food!
- Don't you do that...
Even the ever popular, "That is NOT okay!" (which I have previously thought of as a fairly benign way to correct a child) -- are all examples of negative statements that are often ineffective in improving the child's behavior. In fact, we are learning with our daughter that saying no, stop, or don't seems to actually ramp up negative behavior. It hits the wrong button, as if we're holding the remote control upside down and inadvertently ratcheting the volume up when we want to be turning it down.
In thinking about this over the last several months, I think there are three contributing factors. First, the words no, don't, not, stop, etc. all get used so often with young children that they seem to lose their power. So when a parent says, "Don't hit your brother." it is as if the child's brain mutes the "don't" and the command becomes, " * hit your brother." I say this somewhat facetiously, and yet I think there is an element of truth. Second, particularly if the child is already upset or angry or frustrated and an adult is telling them what they should not do, when what they need to hear is what they should do (see below), it adds another level of upset, anger, and frustration. Third, and perhaps most importantly, when an adult says any negative construct of correction, they will inevitably say it in a harsh, loud, unregulated voice that adds to the child's lack of regulation.
I am no expert at this. After months of practice I still find myself saying no, don't, and stop, but I'm learning to follow quickly with what is called the positive opposite. This is simply phrasing your correction as a directive toward what you want the child to be doing. Recently our twins have a fun way of letting us know they want more food, they slap the table with their hands. This is probably normal for their age, but our special needs daughter was mimicking the banging and between the three the whole table would shake until the drinks threatened to spill over. Rather than yelling, "Stop banging the table!" we decided to say, "Quiet hands, please" and add some physical support of gently holding the babies hands. Our oldest daughter now loves being the example of how to have quiet hands, so when the babies begin to bang away she now says, "Quiet hands, babies" and shows them how to silently pat. It has been a much nicer way to resolve the problem.
Some other positive opposites we are trying to remember to use (note these are written from the child's perspective):
- We always use gentle hands.
- We always keep our feet down.
- Inside the house and car we are calm and quiet.
- When I need help I walk to Mommy or Daddy.
- We always stay close in parking lots, sidewalks and crosswalks.
- Each person can finish their turn. I can ask to be next.
My goal is to have these positive statements be the first things that come out of my mouth. Perhaps a portion of the reason the negative constructs are spoken first is from sheer force of habit, but the larger share is my heart attitude that needs to be addressed. "...For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks." (Matthew 12:34, NIV) Positive opposites are best used when coupled with profuse praise when the child does the right thing. Having a heart that is looking for opportunities to praise is a big piece of being willing to put in the extra effort to phrase correction positively.
Credit where it is due: I learned about this and other techniques I am currently using with my daughter from two wonderful people, Clarissa Montanaro and Robin Hauge. Please contact them at clarissamontanaro-AT-gmail-DOT-com for more information on this technique.