Keeping it Positive

by Heligirl on April 11, 2010

in Parenting Articles

If you see your child pulling the dog’s tail, what is the first thing that jumps into your head to say? If it’s something like “Don’t pull the dog’s tail,” then you’re like most everyone out there. I know I was raised with “don’t do this,” “don’t do that” and it comes naturally to say the same. However, child psychologists and the like have pretty much determined the child hears everything but the “don’t.” They hear “pull the dog’s tail.” You’re emphasizing the exact behavior you want to curb.

Positive discipline, compassionate parenting, positive parenting and similar parenting philosophies emphasize the importance of focusing on what the child can to, as well as taking the opportunity to teach a lesson in these instances. In the above example, you could say (and demonstrate), “Pulling the dog’s tail hurts. You can pet the dog nicely like this on his back. He likes that. See how he wags his tail when you pet him nice?” By saying something like that, you’ve highlighted how to properly treat the beloved family pet, illustrated empathy, gave the child something he could do and then encouraged it by pointing out how the dog liked it.

This approach is not only more effective in changing the behavior you’re trying to affect than the standard “don’t,” but it also helps with laying the foundation of empowering the child. Kids want to please us and do well. The positive statement approach gives them the tools (in this case an example of what they can do) to achieve that goal. A childhood filled with statements about what he can do will engender a stronger sense of being able to do things far more than a childhood filled with being told what he can’t or shouldn’t do.

I can tell you from my own experience, this has been a hard one to learn. We started right away as Sweetness started crawling then walking, which sort of went hand in hand with when she started doing things we needed to correct. I’m so programed to say “no” and “don’t.” It’s hard in the heat of the moment to remember to come up with a positive (what she can do) rather than a negative (what she can’t do). But when I have, I noticed a marked difference in how quickly she changed her behavior.

For instance, Sweetness likes to tap her fork on the table during her meals. This is noisy, and when she does it with the prongs down causes damage to the table. I went through the roof when she did the later. Yelling “don’t do that, look you hurt the table” had little effect and got her the attention she wanted. So I started calmly saying, “We eat with our forks. Your fork goes on the plate.” Suddenly the fork was back on the plate. I followed up with a “thank you.” If she went back to the behavior, I said, “Oh, the fork isn’t on the plate. That means your done.” Sometimes she would just put it back and say “all done,” or immediately go back to eating because she’s learned my next move is to remove her from the table calmly as if her banging was just a clear message she was done and wanted down. The banging has really reduced and it’s been a long time since the prongs hit the table because when that happened, she was done no matter what she said and I just kept telling her, “when you hit the table with the fork, it hurts that table. We eat with our forks and when we hit the table with them, we’re done.”

We tried the same with her tendency to get up on the furniture and stand. Our response, “We sit on the furniture. If you stand, you can fall and hurt yourself.” She’s old enough that she understands the “fall and hurt yourself” part. She’ll sit down right away.

Some other examples: “Your coat goes on the hook/shoes go by the coats.” “Your brother was playing with that. You need to ask him if he’s finished and if he’s not, ask if you can have it when he’s done.” “Trains stay on the floor. If you throw them, they can hurt someone – mommy, baby brother, the dogs. If you don’t want to play with them on the floor, they have to go back in the box.” I always follow up with a “thank you” when she does what I asked. It shows appreciation and respect.

This all takes some practice and don’t worry if you miss it a few times. It’s all in the volume. If you’re more positive than negative, it will show. It also takes more engagement on your part. It’s really easy to say “don’t do that” and be done with it. You need to stop what you’re doing and look at how you can use the opportunity to be positive and teach a lesson or value. But in the end it pays off. Being more engaged now (supposedly) saves you from years of anguish in the teen years when, if their childhood was filled with “don’t” and “no,” they’re all about the rebellion.

On a final note, some experts warn that taking the time to try to teach a lesson to kids younger than 2 or 3 can be a waste of breath. I say you need as much practice as you can get. I know I did. Your little one may not know what you’re talking about, but he’ll know that you stop and talk to him, which in itself speaks volumes. You just have to have low expectations on the lesson teaching part for a while. When he starts to understand, it will be all the better.


ericka @ alabaster cow April 11, 2010 at 10:06 am

so she doesn’t here the “don’t.” that explains everything lol! ava’s too young for the explanation but i swear that girl is hard headed. i’m dreading the terrible twos!

Heligirl April 11, 2010 at 1:33 pm

Yeah, Erika, it’s insane. But now everyone is telling me the twos are fine compared to the threes. I’m not sure it ever ends. Ahhhh!

LCW April 19, 2010 at 5:50 am

This is great advice. I’ve already started to instill this type of parenting and conversation with my 7 month old. She’ll start shrieking when she wants to be held or change activities and I try really hard to speak softly so she’ll have to stop shrieking to hear me and changer her activity when she stops shrieking. I’m hoping to reinforce the silence rather than the shrieking. As a former teacher I hope I’m semi prepared for what’s to come. I look forward to reading more of your articles and book recommendations.

Heligirl April 19, 2010 at 7:09 am

Hey LCW, welcome to Heligirl. I’m so psyched you visited. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I’m always learning when others share what they do too. Sounds like you’re on the right track. Kudos for keeping it together when she is going ballistic. I KNOW how hard that is. 🙂

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