One of my favorite stories from my parents’ early experiences as a young married couple at law school ends with my mom opening her front door to find a friendly neighbor standing there next to my sister (a young preschooler at the time), who had stripped down to her nothings and was covered in mud.
My sister was elated.
My mother was mortified.
So now that you know the punchline, let me tell you how we got there.
As my mom sent my sister out to play on the shared playground, she noticed there were quite a few new mud puddles that morning.
“Make sure you don’t get your clothes muddy,” she instructed my sister.
So, being obedient (but also showing her nonconformist gene early on) my sister took off ALL her clothes, folded them into a neat pile, and dove right into the mud.
Did she do what she was told? Absolutely.
While the “creatively obedient nonconformist” gene may be particularly strong in my family, a similar scene plays out with young children all the time.
Rather than setting clear limits with language that creates a picture of what we DO want kids to do, we have a tendency to tell them what we DON’T want them to do. And hope they fill in the blanks.
We say things like, “Don’t hit your brother.” And get frustrated when she kicks him instead.
We say, “Don’t bounce in your chairs.” And then wonder why we suddenly have a classroom full of bouncers.
Here are three reasons why telling kids what NOT to do usually backfires.
Language Paints a Picture
When we give instructions we’re not just transmitting words, we’re painting a mental picture. The picture we paint in a child’s mind has a great amount of influence on the child’s actions. If our words paint a picture of the behavior we don’t want to see, we’re likely to see more of it because we’ve planted the idea with a powerful image. To use a common example, if I tell you not to think of an elephant, what’s the first thing to pop into your mind?
Stating directions negatively draws attention to the wrong mental image and leaves the child to guess at what we mean. Rather than creating a mental image of the behavior we DON’T want to see, we need to use our words to help the child visualize the behavior we DO want to see.
“I need to see children sitting with their hands to themselves. Their eyes are on the speaker and their ears are listening.”
“Be sure to hold your bowl carefully with both hands.”
The words we use can help children to picture themselves behaving appropriately and that picture will guide their actions.
Negative Gets Attention, Not Results
When we’re talking to toddlers and preschoolers in particular, words like “No” or “Don’t” at the beginning of directions tend to get the child’s attention without adding meaning. The child focuses on the words that follow, not the negative qualifier that preceded them. So, in essence, “Don’t throw your food,” becomes “Hey! Throw your food.” “No running in the library,” turns into, “Lookie here! Running in the library!”
While there are times when we need to state emphatically that something is NOT OK, or when we will start with a negative direction out of habit, it’s important that we follow up with what SHOULD be done.
“No running,” is followed by, “Walking feet, please.”
“Don’t hit,” leads to, “We take care with each other.”
Children Need the Details
Lastly, when we tell kids what NOT to do, we are leaving them to fill in the blanks, which rarely goes well.
“Don’t eat the cookies before dinner,” can leave room for eating candy instead.
“Don’t scream while the baby’s sleeping,” keeps the door open to making insanely loud (and strange) duck sounds. (Ask me how I know.)
“Don’t get your clothes muddy,” easily translates into “Fold your clothes carefully before you go skinny dipping in that giant mud puddle.”
We can spend all day covering all the things we DON’T want our kids to do and, like my sister, they will still find a way to keep from crossing those lines while still doing the one thing you hadn’t thought to rule out yet.
OR we can give them one, clear mental picture of what we do want to see instead.