As our toddlers grow, we start to be more aware of the words and phrases we are using with them. Most of us would rather our children didn’t learn to use swear words and other negative phrases that will get them in trouble and create judgements about the child and our families. But did you know there’s another “dirty word” we may be using many times every day that’s doing the opposite of what we’d like to see?
These kinds of negative words we use out of instinct each day, in hopes that our toddlers will learn what not to do, just aren’t working the way we want. Have you watched as your little one hears a “No!”, looks at you with a cheeky little smile, and proceeds to engage further in what you’re trying to communicate they immediately cease and desist?
The problem lies in that saying “No! Don’t do (whatever it is)” is placing a lot of focus on the behaviour you don’t want to see. Children crave attention. It helps them ensure adults are engaging with them and offering them the experiences they need each day to grow and learn. There is no differentiation between positive and negative attention – they just want to be seen and responded to.
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When a young child is given a phrase like “No! Don’t put your sandwich in the DVD player!”, they are given a script to focus on. The part they hear is “Sandwich in the DVD player” and are happy to oblige. Mommy or Daddy will then come on over, and interact, possibly even talking to them excitedly a little while longer before they do.
Now, I’m not saying that you should stop using the word “no”, or other words that relate to the negative. It’s important for children to hear the words that get used in language every day, and using words to denote negatives are a valuable part of communication. I’m not suggesting you black-list “no” and “don’t” in conversation and start plunking quarters in the swear-jar every time one of these slips out. And to say that I never tell my toddler “no” would be far from the truth. But this is what I try. I’m sharing in hopes that it helps others learn how to get toddlers to listen.
Instead of putting the focus on the behaviour you don’t want to see – what not to do – I make my best effort to give the child in idea of what they can do. Telling a baby, toddler, or preschooler that what they’re doing isn’t “right” doesn’t help them figure out what they should be doing. Instead, it makes a game out of being “naughty”, and when “No”, “Bad”, “Don’t”, “Stop” and other negative words are used over and over again, constantly through the day, it starts to build a negative self-image of the child. Toddlers can start to think that those are descriptive words for them, rather than the behaviours. A negative self-image only leads to more behavioural mistakes, and further attempts to create engagement through misbehaviour.
The next time Tommy tries to stuff his treats in the DVD player, try using positive words rather than the negative go-to’s we’re used to spitting out. “Don’t put your cracker in there!” can easily be reworded to “Keep your cracker out of the DVD player”. Even better, redirect the behaviour to what he can do with the chewed, crumby, and likely hairy food. “Eat your cracker” or “Crackers go in this container” will give a child an idea of how to better spend their efforts.
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What TO Say To Toddlers
Here are a few simple rephrases to get you started moving from negative statements to positive redirectors. Try to always show a child the expected behaviour so they have an example to draw from.
- “Don’t hit!” –> “Pat gently” (show visually and use hand-over-hand as example)
- “No yelling!” –> “Use a quiet voice” (Again, lead by example and demonstrate)
- “Stop throwing your food on the floor!” –> “Put your food in this bowl”
- “Don’t eat the book!” –> “Turn the pages”
- “No running!” –> “Walking feet, please”
- “Leave that heater alone!” –> “Come play with this ball”
- “Don’t touch that!” —> “This is only for looking at” (Describe what you see)
This isn’t always easy, as what usually comes out first is what we are noticing. Trying to notice what your toddler is showing you they have an interest in, and redirecting behaviours that aren’t safe or working for the situation, may bring both of you more contentment.
Hopefully this simple change of language will help make your days easier, and give your toddler a stronger sense of what he or she can do with their playful and discovering energies. If you found any of this helpful, please share this post to spread this tactic around for other parents and caregivers to draw from!
What behaviours are hardest for you to work with? How do you say “no” to little ones? Comment below!
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