Sometimes I hear parents disparage advice to avoid using negative directives. The mockery usually goes like this: “So, we’re not supposed to say ‘no!’ That’s ridiculous. We are just supposed to affirm them all the time. Kids don’t know what is good for them.” I agree that kids don’t always know what’s good for them (Peeps for dinner? Bad idea.), and issuing a lot of nos and don’ts sounds like good, strict parenting. Unfortunately, I think many times, “No,” is the favorite weapon of ineffective projectile parents. “No” might be more a symptom of my laziness than healthy strictness.
Here’s what I think people may miss: giving “positive instruction” doesn’t mean letting your child do whatever he wants; it means telling him what he should do, rather than what he shouldn’t do. For instance, rather than telling a child who is running wild, “Don’t!” I could tell him, “Hold my hand or my pocket until we get to the car.” Instead of issuing repeated warnings of “No!” I could instruct a child, “Sit down when you’re in the tub,” or “Keep all the legs of the chair on the floor,” or, “Spit is for sinks.”
While there’s definitely a time and a place for a firm no, I think there’s much to be said for the positive instructions ideal. First, it does keep the mood from turning as negative as words like don’t and no. If you’ve ever been on a diet, you know that you’re happier (and more successful) with a set of fun recipes to explore, rather than just a list of foods to avoid. The same concept holds true for children.
More importantly, positive instructions clarify my expectations. This has two benefits: I am forced to think through what it is that I want the child to do and see if it’s developmentally appropriate, and the child clearly knows what to do.
Also, it makes me do the thinking instead of a child. So I don’t want a child ripping magazine pages? What do I want him to do? Do I want to show him how to read a magazine carefully, or hand him a board book instead, or show him some papers he can use to make confetti? Just saying, “Don’t rip those,” (or worse, just “Don’t!) forces the little one to find an alternative. Since a three-year-old probably isn’t terribly motivated to give up his personal paper-shredding business, or very aware of his alternatives, he’s not likely to be successful. It’s like throwing a road-block up in front of a child and expecting him to forge a new path- far better to choose one or two safe paths and point the way.
Finally, choosing positive instructions gives a child hope because it zeros in on what it is that’s inappropriate with his behavior, instead of just casting a blanket no over the whole thing. It’s not that he can’t pet the dog, it’s that he should touch the dog’s back like this (as opposed to poking his eyes or yanking his tail). It’s not that she has to like my plan for the afternoon, it’s that she has to use a soft voice when she tells me she would rather play outside longer. Too many nos, and we’ll make the world seem like a series of red lights, leading to a lot of unnecessary frustration and resentment.
While I find I have to use less consequences when I use positive instructions, I still follow through. Positive instructions aren’t about being a push-over; they’re a tool for parents/teachers/babysitters who are engaged, proactive, reasonable, and yes, firm.
That’s my not-a-parent-but-I-have-worked-with-more-than-a-few-kids two cents. Happy Monday!