Avoid Negative Language

Your words have the power to make a situation positive or negative. For example, if you start a phrase with the word “unfortunately,” you immediately create a negative mindset in the person receiving the message. The word conjures up that something bad or unpleasant is about to follow, and whatever you say after “unfortunately” will be viewed negatively. The same holds true with the word “but” because it has a tendency to negate whatever comes before it; for example, “Yes, you can go with your friends but you need to be back by nine o’clock.” Substituting the word “and” for “but” eliminates the negative connotation: “Sure you can go with your friends and be back by nine o’clock.” It creates an entirely different feeling.

Your language helps mold your child’s thoughts. “No” is a negative word and implies wrongdoing. It almost always provokes resistance. “No” is not meant to be flexible or compromising. Even in a conversational voice, no one reacts well to the word “no”—as in, “What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?” It has a commanding aspect, is harsh, and builds reluctance. Interestingly, when children are told not to do something, they often want to do it even more. Forbidden fruit always tastes sweeter.

The good news is that parents rarely actually need to say “no” to children. The exception, of course, is when children’s behavior puts their own or others’ health or safety at risk. Instead of “no,” parents can use “not,” which does not carry the negative overtones that “no” connotes and therefore does not provoke the same resistance.

Every time you want to say “no,” ask yourself what is not okay about what your children are doing. Then replace the word “no” with the word “not” and add a phrase that describes the behavior you want—rather than one you do not want. This gives children information about what is acceptable. It is easier for children to hear how to do something correctly than to hear that what they are doing is wrong. More often than not, when children are given information respectfully, they comply rather than resist.

For example, to a child playing with a ball against the garage door, say, “Please, not against the door; bounce the ball on the sidewalk.” You can also empower the child to make a better decision by asking a reflective question, such as, “Can you make a better choice?” These same words can be used in many situations. The approach places the responsibility for coming up with an acceptable decision on the child—where it belongs. This type of communication starts the child thinking: “What would be an appropriate location for playing with the ball?”

Young people embrace positive words and suggestions; they don’t resist them. When you start to think in terms of what you DO want, rather than what you do not want, the practice becomes quite easy, as in, “A shoe is made for walking, rather than for throwing,” and “A crayon is made for coloring, rather than for breaking.” These verbal guidelines are important. They teach children without being negative or using power or control over them. These verbal communications are influential, strong, and effective. Instead of using power over children, you are helping them to become more responsible.