We tend to underestimate how negative language impacts children. Find out why it is a less effective form of discipline and very basic alternatives below.
My three-year-old son can be strong-willed and vocal. But, most of the time, he is open to reason.
That all changed three weeks ago.
We had come back from celebrating Christmas out of town. As if playing Santa, (setting up a KidKraft dollhouse is no quick feat), packing up our two young ones and travelling wasn’t enough, I am very pregnant. I mean pregnant to the point that people think I’m due any day even though I’m not.
Once home, my kids showed signs of being overstimulated from all of the holiday excitement. Sibling rivalry consumed our household. My daughter wanted space. And my son took that as a challenge to see how many buttons of hers he could push.
And I was bone tired and resorted to parenting from the couch.
“Stop bugging your sister!”
“Stop touching her.”
“Stop. it. now!”
Soon, every time I got down to my little boy’s level and opened my mouth, I was met with the word, “STOP!”
I took a step back and evaluated my approach.
I tried reacting more thoughtfully. I thought I was using every positive parenting strategy in the book. But he continued to stonewall me. I was at a loss.
My light bulb moment.
It took me way too long, but I realized the error of my ways. He was speaking to me the way he was being spoken to.
One morning, exasperated, I made a pact with my kids. “We’re going to stop saying ‘Stop.’ It isn’t helping any of us. So, if Mama says, ‘Stop,’ one of you need to remind me that we don’t talk that way. If one of you say, ‘Stop,’ I will remind you.”
Almost immediately, both of my children found more positive wording to express how they were feeling.
Related reading: Here are Effective Strategies That Will Get Your Kids to Listen
Guess who got caught saying ‘Stop” far too much?
Mmmhmm. It was me.
It reinforced my previous idea that negative language impacts children negatively. I was sorry I had been so oblivious.
How Negative Language Impacts Children
Negative vs. Positive Language
Research has shown that negative language does more harm than good. The reason? Discipline worded negatively is much harder to understand.
‘Stop’ on its own tells a child nothing. He left to deduce what he shouldn’t be doing and what he should be doing. For preschoolers and toddlers, that’s asking too much.
Now, some may argue we should simply add what they should stop doing to the word stop. However, by being specific, we are only resolving half of the issue. We still haven’t told our children what they should be doing. As a result, we are requiring our children to double-process. This means a young child must discern what they should and shouldn’t be doing. Moreover, negative language becomes discouraging to children. When they constantly hear what they are doing wrong, it can feel futile to try to do right.
On the other hand, positive language tells them what to do instead and eliminates confusion. It reinforces good behaviour, is clear, and requires that the parents put more thought into their discipline. In truth, when we default to the same phrases, our children are more likely to ignore us.
[Related reading: Stop Yelling At Your Kids With This Simple Trick]
Alternatives to Negative Language
- Don’t run – Walk, please.
- Stop touching your sister – Hands to yourself.
- Don’t throw toys – Please keep your toys on the ground.
- Leave him alone – Come over here and play.
- Don’t take out all your toys – Let’s clean up what you were playing with before taking anything else out.
- Don’t hit – Only gentle touches, please.
- Stop yelling – Quiet voice, please.
- Calm down – Take a deep breath. (You can find 14 more alternatives to saying calm down here.)
- You’re doing bad listening – Look at my eyes. I need good listening.
- Stop picking your nose – Go get a Kleenex, please.
Finding a way to say ‘yes,’ goes a long way. For instance, instead of answering, “No you can’t have a cupcake now,” saying, “After dinner, you can have a treat,” is much easier to digest. The message is different, the outcome the same.
Does this mean we should never use negative language?
When children are inundated with negative language they feel like they can’t do right and also find it more difficult to listen. It’s best to try and phase discipline positively. But that isn’t to say that we should omit negative language altogether. Simply, we need to try our best and use it sparingly.