The Power in Positive Phrasing

One of my son’s favorite books is “No, David!” by David Shannon. We read it all the time. I like to jokingly put his name in the book, and while it is funny, it also hits a nerve for him and me too. That’s because we can both see him as the character in this book, a little boy who has trouble controlling his emotions and actions and, as a result, hears the word “No,” a lot. 

The funny thing is I know that that is the least effective way to communicate with him and to get him to do what I need to be done. I’ve read all the research on positive phrasing; as a teacher, I had that skill down almost to perfection. I even counseled other parents to use it and explained the benefits behind it. As a mom, though, easier said than done.

When you place a negative in front of a phrase, the child doesn’t hear the negative; they hear the action. So “Don’t run inside” becomes “run inside.” Now, I am not saying children hear this and automatically think you are telling them to run in the house, but the negative gets washed away; it’s not effective.

Positive phrasing, in all communication, is more likely to yield the results you’re after. But why? Well, first, it’s more pleasing to the ear and the mind. “Please walk inside” is more compelling than “Don’t run!” Second, when we phrase things positively, we are more likely to speak in a calm voice than yelling or a scolding tone. A calm voice is more likely to garner attention.

Experts say if you want your children to listen quietly and calmly, don’t yell. When you yell, they begin to shut you out and begin to shut down. When you speak calmly and quietly, you show respect, which begets respect, and they are also forced to listen to hear what you have to say.

You may still get surly looks and crossed arms when you talk quietly, but I guarantee they are listening. 

Telling your child what you want or expect instead of what you don’t want sets up clear guidelines; it tells your child exactly what is expected. If you say, “Don’t run,” it leaves room for them to interpret that as ok well, I can still skip, jump, hop, cartwheel, or crawl. If you say, “You need to walk when inside the house,” there is no room for interpretation. It’s cut and dry.

Trust me, I know this is a difficult skill to conquer, especially of late when we’ve all had way more “quality” time with our children than ever before, but it does work. And I need to remind myself of that from time to time too. But just try it, write your self post-it notes or reminders around the house so you see them and can remember it in the heat of the moment. 

Try taking a deep breath before responding to your child’s behavior. It will help you stay calm and it gives you a chance to phrase what you need to say in your head first.

Take some time and think of all the things you say “no” to in a day and see if you can flip them into positives.

Instead of:

  • Don’t leave your laundry on the floor.
  • Stop playing with your food.
  • Stop hitting your brother.
  • We don’t draw on the wall.
  • Don’t dump all your toys out.
  • Don’t talk back to me.

Try:

  • Please put your laundry in the basket
  • I need you to eat because you are making a mess.
  • You need to keep your hands to yourself.
  • Crayons and markers are used on paper.
  • Please clean up your toys when you’re finished.
  • You need to speak respectfully to me.

Phrasing things positively doesn’t mean you are saying yes to everything; it means you set up clear expectations of what is expected and acceptable. 

Save “No” for moments of danger. Then it should be said in a loud, firm voice. Yelling “No” or “Stop” right before a kid touches a hot stove or steps off the sidewalk as a car barrels down will give them the jolt to potentially stop the dangerous choice. 

When children hear no all the time, it loses its polish. Think of “No” as your boy who cried wolf. If it happens all the time, no one is going to listen to it. If you save it for moments of import, your child will not be used to hearing it, so the novelty will grab their focus. 

My boys are fans of the new movie “YES DAY” and have watched it at least twenty times in the last few weeks. The concept is that for one day, the parents say yes to anything the kids ask (within a set of parameters, of course).

They have asked me to have a Yes Day on more than one occasion. So far, the answer is a no… but we’ll see.

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