Parent Education: Giving Directions Your Kids Will Follow
Words have meaning
As parents we are the leaders in our families. It is expected we will direct our children and provide boundaries and set limits for them. We can tell them to stop doing behavior x, or don’t do behavior x, or even tell them no more of behavior x. The problem is that when we tell them not to do behavior x it becomes the thing their attention gets focused on. What we need to do is to state the directives by asking for the positive opposite of behavior x. I can tell my children don’t smile, no laughing, there is no joy or laughing in this car . Of course they will always smile and laugh. That is where I focused their attention. Of course if I tell them serious faces I am more likely to get the somber look I asked for.
When we give a negative directive, the thing we want them to avoid doing becomes the thing they keep thinking about. They really can’t help it. It isn’t our intention to do that but that is the result because that is where we directed their attention. So often our responses to our kids are just unconscious reactions or maybe remnants of things our parents used to tell us. Try to generate positive directives because they will be worth it for you and your kids. It might take a while to think of the positive alternatives to what you don’t want them to be doing. But by doing so, it will help take you out of a negative cycle that usually doesn’t improve until we change our language.
For some of us this may be easier said than done. Our kids are often masters at finding ways to get a reaction and they sometimes get in the habit of getting their attention in negative ways. It can require a concerted effort on our part to avoid saying no hitting after seeing little Davey smack his sister on the head with a newspaper. Who at this point is thinking play peacefully? Other more colorful comments may also enter a parent’s thought process. Try to avoid calling your child a “little $&##”, that’s not really in the spirit of being positive either. It might feel good for a minute or so for'ssome of us, but sadly we are only reinforcing our child's negative actions (and probably feeling guilty afterward about our own lack of self-control).
Now at this point most parents would say, well that sure sounds great but when I get really upset at my children and tell them don’t or stop do ing that they usually pay attention . I agree this can work at times but it is often only short term because the alternative to what they are doing wrong still hasn’t been suggested. In other words, I can yell don’t hit at my children and they might stop, but the minute I am not watching they are likely to still be thinking about hitting. If you do need to tell them don’t or no at least try to follow it up with the behavior you would like them to replace it with. A lot of parents have a hard time not reacting. We have all been there but the key is to try to catch yourself doing it and try to replace it with the positive approach. Changing our own parenting is not going to happen immediately. Behavior change goes where we lead it.
An Awareness Change
In fact, I would suggest that before using the positive alternative it might help to spend a few days just noticing the things you respond to in a negative way. You may be surprised. You can even keep a journal of these events to record the specific things that trigger your reaction. Trying to remember at the end of the day all the things you said and did can be misleading, so it can be helpful to keep a piece of paper nearby to record it as it happens. Another technique that works well is to simply label it as it happens by calmly saying the word NEGATIVE in your mind while you are doing it. Noticing our own behavior takes effort, but an awareness change is the first step in altering what we have been doing. We sometimes have blind spots and don’t realize how often we just say no or don’t.
Do your best not to rationalize and justify your negative responses. Try to just notice it and be aware of it. At this point you don’t need to change it but you also don’t need to reinforce it. You can even videotape yourself if you are really adventurous. Either way once you start to pay attention to the language you use you may realize it is more about don’ts than it is about dos.
After a few days of logging the negative responses you can start to think of the alternative positive statements you can use to replace the negative ones you have been using. By now you have a good idea of what behaviors of your children trigger your responses, so you can plan a more rational approach to leading your kids in a positive direction. If you say don’t trip many kids will think about tripping and therefore stumble. Try saying walk carefully instead. If you stay don’t make a mess most children will only think about the mess. Why not say keep your area clean? Or how about please close the door instead of don’t leave the door open.
Being role models
Some parents may or may not receive support with this approach from their partners. While having both parents on board is ideal, it can still be helpful even when only one parent begins to make these changes. Be aware this is not a magic pill. Kids still sometimes do what they want despite what we tell them. But this is one change that can really be valuable in helping children find more positive ways to act and interact. If you create a void by telling children what not to do, you need to fill that void with an acceptable alternative.
Remember children also learn by what we model. We are the most influential role models in their lives. So if we want our kids to be calm, peaceful, careful, honest, gentle, thoughtful, organized, well-mannered etc. then we need to display these same behaviors to the best of our abilities. Many parents have told me well this is just the way I am. I can’t help it. They tell me they aren’t really willing to change. This always surprises me. Parents want to bring about change in their child’s behavior but yet they often claim they are not capable of change themselves. Good parenting requires willingness to change and the ability to always think of ourselves as a work in progress. We are never perfect but we can always aspire to get closer to our ideal.