Have you ever told a child not to do something, only to have them do that very thing one second later? Infuriating, isn’t it? The child, it seems, is being belligerent and willfully disobedient. But things aren’t always as they appear. You see, children are very suggestible. Once they have a mental image of a behavior, they are very likely to try it out. That mental image may come from something they saw on TV, read in a book, or that we have described to them with our words. Our words create a mental picture for them, and we want that picture to be of what they should do, not of what they should not do.
When we say something like, “Don’t hit your sister!” the image created is still of that child hitting her sister. Our verbal directions need to describe what we want to see, creating that mental picture that we want the child to follow.
Additionally, when our message and the image it creates only conveys what they should not do, even if they understand that, they are at a loss as to what they should do. They may stop hitting their neighbors only to start pinching them instead. They are being obedient….aren’t they? Redirecting and giving gentle reminders helps them to know what they should do. If you don’t want them hitting or punching their neighbors, describe how you would like them to sit, or suggest they find a toy they think their neighbor might like to play with. Whatever behavior you would like to see in the negative behavior’s place, you need to suggest it in a clearly descriptive way. Using gerunds (verbs ending in -ing) has been found to be particularly helpful as it creates an active, present image for the child to follow. (“We’re walking inside.” “We’re sitting nicely by our friends with our hands in our laps.”)
Here’s a bit of information I share as part of my work with The Children’s Center. It comes from research a little ways back, but I still find it so interesting. Here’s an excerpt from “Soft Words Speak Louder with Kids” by Richard Camer:
Researchers at Wayne State University tested how well 36 kids, half between 3 and 4 years old and half between 5 and 6 years old, listened to what they were told to do. Half the commands were positive (for example, “Clap your hands!”), and half were negative (“Don’t touch your toes!”). The commands were made in a soft, medium or loud voice.
When the adults spoke softly, both groups of kids obeyed without much hesitation. But when the researchers raised their voices, a curious difference emerged: The 5 and 6 year olds were likely to comply, while the 3 and 4 year olds did exactly what they were told not to do.
Previous studies have shown that children younger than 5 respond first “to the physical energy” of instructions and then to the meaning. The researchers, led by psychologist Eli Saltz, suggest in Developmental Psychology (Vol. 19, No. 3) that in the case of negative commands, a loud “don’t” merely calls a youngster’s attention to what follows in the command. Having been alerted, the child then simply follows the second part of the command. (Taken from Psychology Today/ December 1983)
So with that research in mind, (in addition to recognizing the influence of the tone of voice) let’s consider what we frequently say, versus what young children actually hear. If the initial negative word simply serves to call attention to the rest of the message, this is what we get:
“Don’t throw blocks!” = “Hey you! Throw blocks!”
“Don’t run inside!” = “Hi there! Yes, you! Run inside!”
This may seem hard to believe, but think of it from the perspective of a language learner. Most of us have studied another language to some degree at some point in our lives. And I think we can all relate to being in that position where someone is speaking to us in that foreign language, and we have a general idea of what they’re saying, but we’re just a bit hazy on the specifics. It would be very easy for us to miss a “don’t” or a “stop” and only understand the action part of the command. Young children are in a similar position. They are relatively new at using and understanding the subtleties of language. When one word changes the meaning of an entire sentence (ie “Don’t chew on the puzzle.” – “Chew on the puzzle.”) that can be a bit hard to catch.
Here’s an example. A friend of mine has a two and a half year old, Eddie, who loves his many blankets. Well, one night he was having a hard time staying in his room, so his mom told him, “If you come out of your room again, I’m going to have to keep all your blankets.” Well, not too much later, out marches Eddie with his blankets in hand, handing them over to his mom. Overt defiance? Not impossible. But what is more likely is that his limited 30 month old language center heard, “If you come out again, bring me your blankets.” He may have actually been acting in compliance with what he understood his mom to be saying!
Now, I’m not suggesting that children should never hear the word “no”, nor would I imply that you never tell a child his behavior is inappropriate. A quick “No!” or “Stop!” can be necessary, especially in moments where safety is a concern and you need a quick response. If you overuse these phrases, however, they lose their meaning and urgency, and will not get you that quick response. In more everyday situations, you may need to use a corrective negative phrase (“It is not OK to hit.”), to make it clear that a behavior is inappropriate, but that correction needs to be followed with a positive description of the behavior you would like to see. Simply stating what a child is doing wrong will do very little to correct behavior.
Lastly, for the very minor infractions, those nagging habits like being mildly disruptive at circle time or using a voice that’s just a bit too loud at the library, we don’t always need to beat the child down with a correction. Simply using a positive phrase to gently remind or coach the child through the situation will go much further. (“Right now is circle time, and we’re showing good listening by Giving Five.” “We’re using our whispering voices in the library.”)
So pay attention this week as you correct and guide the children you love and teach. Try to use your words to create a positive visual image of what you want them to do. And let us all know how it works for you!
Top photo by stay4while.