Maybe you’ve noticed the latest trend in the running commentary on parenting. “Parents today are too soft. They’re raising spoiled kids who’ve never heard the word “NO”. Parents need to show their kids who’s in control here.”
While I’m sure you could find plenty of examples to validate each perspective, I tend to wince a bit whenever I hear these tendencies to frame parenting in the extremes. Take in enough of these stories and it would seem that as a parent, you have two choices. You can either be a spineless push-over or a heavy-handed dictator. But the truth of the matter is that we know from research that the majority of kids thrive in that sweet spot in between.
While a lot of attention is given to the false dichotomy of permissive parenting (high warmth, low control) vs authoritarian parenting (high control, low warmth), the balanced, authoritative approach is often overlooked. Perhaps that’s because the balance negates the either/or argument that sells controversial books and generates passionate discussions. Authoritative parenting combines moderate control (giving choices within boundaries) with a healthy, connected parent-child relationship.
Unfortunately, a balanced, positive approach is often mistaken for something that it’s not. The practice of using open communication, allowing choices within boundaries, building a positive relationship, and encouraging children to build self-control (over total parental control) is sometimes mistaken by onlookers for a laissez faire approach to raising kids.
On the flip side, however, there are also some who believe they are practicing authoritative, positive guidance, but mistakenly perceive assertive boundaries to be incongruent with their philosophy.
One area where I’ve noticed this clash of perspectives is with the topic of saying “no” to kids.
You don’t have to look too hard to find a book or article proclaiming that today’s parents are soft, and their kids are all ruined. They don’t even know what the word “no” sounds like, much less how to cope with hearing it.
On the other misguided extreme you hear parents performing verbal gymnastics, trying to avoid any use of the word “no”, “don’t”, or “stop”, all in the name of positive parenting.
With contradicting messages coming from either extreme, parents can be left feeling confused and overwhelmed.
Clarity lies in that sweet spot in between. So here’s where we ditch the hyperbole and dig into the guiding principles behind sound practice.
Why No Can Be a No-No.
There are multiple reasons for avoiding unnecessary negative commands. The first is the desire for more positive parent-child interactions than negative. So we build a positive relationship (and model respect and civility) when say, “Keep your hands to yourself, please,” instead of “Don’t hit!”
But the purpose goes beyond the valid desire to keep more tally marks in the positive interactions column. It also connects to what we know about how children think.
When we phrase things negatively, we’ve left our children with a mental image that reinforces what we don’t want. Consider this: If I say, “Don’t think about what gorillas look like,” what image immediately pops into your mind? Gorillas, of course. It’s not because you’re being willfully disobedient. It’s because the words I used created mental prompts that were opposite of what I “said” I wanted you to do.
Similarly when we say, “Don’t hit your sister,” the word “hit” carries a much more pervasive visual than the word “don’t”, so the mental cue our kids have rolling around in their minds is one of hitting a sister. Young children are particularly vulnerable to this, as research has shown that what they process in this phrase is essentially the subject and verb: “hit sister”. We are much more effective when we use a verb that describes what we want to see.
Lastly, stating positive, clear directions gives enough information to tell kids what we do want them to do. Back to our example, if you tell a child, “Don’t hit your sister,” you’ve technically left the door open for kicking the sister or hitting the dog. So the clear, positive message of “Please, keep your hands and feet to yourself,” or “Please give others enough safe space” removes the loopholes and creates a new, clear image of something you would like to see.
So we can see there are many good reasons to phrase things positively.
There’s Always a But….
Now, whenever I bring up the importance of stating things positively, I can expect to field the question, “So, I should never say “no” to my kids then?”
I don’t think “no” is a damaging word for kids to hear. There are certainly times when a better, more positive phrasing can be used, but there’s nothing magical about avoiding the word “no”. What I do remind parents and teachers, is that — most of the time– when you use a negative directive, it’s important to follow it up with more information. “No” can be a very stark and cold reply. But it can also be a very empathetic, appropriate, and clear way of setting boundaries.
I remember working with a teacher once who was telling me about the linguistic wrestle she went through as she tried to think of a positive phrasing to use with a child who had a bit of a biting problem.
The end result–
“Keep your…. teeth in your…mouth..?”
Was it positively phrased? Sure. Did it give clear boundaries and positive directions? Not so much.
Sometimes, we need to use a very clear negative directive to set firm boundaries. “No biting,” or “We don’t bite people. It hurts,” is absolutely appropriate. Follow it up with more information so that you create that positive mental reference and describe what you do want kids to do, just like in the “no”-free example we discussed earlier.
“If you’re angry I want you to come tell me,” or “If you’re angry you can stomp your feet or bite this toy,” or whatever coping mechanism you’re trying to encourage as a replacement. Your boundary-setting negative phrase is balanced out with an information-giving positive phrase.
I promise our kids will be OK if the the word “no” drifts into their ear canals now and then. The real principle behind making positive statements, in addition to preserving a positive connection, is in using a verb they can act on, creating a positive mental picture, and giving enough information to succeed.
So let’s say you catch yourself saying, “No throwing balls in the house.” Are your kids ruined because you threw the word “no” out there with reckless abandon? Not likely. Just follow up with more information. “You’re welcome to keep playing the game outside.” They have a positive mental image and enough information to make a successful choice within the boundary you’ve given. Take the ball outside or put it down and stay inside.
Maybe the same principle could apply to teaching this concept to parents. Instead of arguing about whether we need to stop being soft, or stop saying “no”, we can do better by describing what we should do, and giving enough information to make a better choice.
- Use more positive statements than negative.
- Use “no” when needed, but follow up with helpful, positive statements.
- Create a mental picture of what you do want to see.
- Be clear about boundaries, and give enough information for kids to be successful.
There are a lot of perspectives out there. Lots of opinions about parenting. But when we quiet the crowd and focus on what we know about the way children develop and learn, we begin to see the simple core principles that guide us as we parent with more clarity and confidence.
I’ve been putting together some fantastic resources to help you recognize these core principles and the tools that bring them to life. I want to invite you to take advantage of those by signing up below. Quiet the crowd. Clarify your core principles. Learn to parent confidently, authentically, powerfully, and positively.
Ann Ricketts says
Thank you for all the hard work and expertise you bring to the field of early childhood and parenting. You remain my “go to” for thought provoking and research based information.
Oh, thank you so much, Ann! I feel so lucky to have loyal readers like you! I smile every time I see your name, because it’s become so familiar. I love having you here!