As I prepare our training sessions and line up guest speakers each spring, I reflect on how all parents should be required to go through camp staff training. Seriously. There is some basic information about child development and behavior that every adult should know before launching into parenthood. Having this information could make their family a much more pleasant place to be.
Since not everyone gets the opportunity to be a camp counselor and go through staff training, I thought I’d share a simple lesson that our counselors will learn next week: Using positive words when working with children can change their behavior and your relationship with them for the better.
Our staff watch a video called, “Rules Were Made to be Positive.” The video walks them through many examples of how any rule, however negative-seeming, can be turned into a positive rule. For example, “No hitting,” becomes, “Keep your hands and feet to yourself.” “Don’t leave craft supplies out,” becomes, “Place supplies in the red bin when you’re finished.” “No teasing,” becomes, “Use kind words with your cabin mates.” You get the idea. Instead of telling kids what we don’t want them to do, we tell them what we do want them to do.
Think about something you find yourself telling your kids “no” or “don’t” about. For example, if you have more than one child, there may be times when you find yourself saying things like, “Don’t be so mean to your sister,” or “Stop hitting your brother.”
Do you know what your kids might be hearing? It may be, “…mean to your sister,” and “…hitting your brother.” Our brains often focus on what we hear after the “no,” “don’t,” or “stop.” We may even get ideas planted in our heads from the words that come after the negative starting word. When we see a sign that says “No diving,” what do we start thinking about? Yep, don’t deny that, like me, you’re envisioning your swan dive off of that exact spot on the dock. When we see that sign, all we can think about is what we’re not supposed to be doing, which is diving. But if we see a sign that reads, “Jump Feet First,” we might envision a cannon-ball into the lake with a huge splash. Got it? That’s the power of positive wording. It can change what we think about and therefore how we act.
How can you as a parent use positive wording in a negative situation? Instead of “Don’t be so mean to your sister,” how about, “Treat each other with kindness.” Instead of “Stop hitting your brother,” try, “Keep your hands in your part of the car.” Before you respond or give a command to your kids, think about what you do want your children to be doing. They need to replace the ill-advised behavior with something better, and they often need prompting from you on what that replacement behavior is. Let your words reflect the “Do”s and give them ideas for specific, positive actions to replace any negative behaviors with a more desirable or appropriate action.
Yesterday in a store, I was near a mother who was repeatedly yelling at her toddler, “Don’t get in the way of people’s carts!” She then grabbed her two-year-old’s arm to pull her out of the way. I wanted to tell the mom, “What about just asking her to hold your hand or help you push the cart?” Then there may have not been so many tears and the moment could have been much more pleasant. But I embarrass my kids when I start talking to random strangers about their parenting, so I held myself back.
In my house (or more accurately, my car), I often say, “Be kind to each other” to the bickering boys behind me. Or, to conserve my limited parental energy, I don’t even address the bickering and just say, “Let’s have some quiet time for a few minutes.” That requires a lot less energy than barking negative instructions over my shoulder.
Beyond our own homes, I wonder if as a community we are communicating big, important ideas to our kids in the wrong way by focusing on the “don’t”s instead of the “do”s. Why don’t we focus on a “Be Kind” message instead of an anti-bullying one? Why don’t we focus on a “Be Healthy” message instead of an anti-drug one? Let’s get positive, great ideas in our kids’ heads instead of negative ones.
In our homes and communities, let’s use positive wording by focusing on the “do”s as we guide our kids to happy, healthy lives!
Positive Words, Powerful Results, by Hal Urban
Teach Your Children Well, by Madeline Levine