Gentle Parenting Tips: 26 Things to Say to Kids Instead of ‘Stop’, ‘Don’t’ and Other Commands

26 alternatives to NO! to help communicate with little kids | Sacraparental.com

Gentle parenting?

I have a love/hate relationship with labels and jargon, in any field. I don’t like being put in a labelled box – who does? – but in a vast, Googleable world, knowing what keyword fits your life situation can be really handy for finding like-minded people or tailored advice.

Gentle parenting‘ is a natural follow-on from ‘attachment parenting‘. The latter is primarily focused on infancy, so when our baby grew into a toddler, I started needing new language for the respectful, he’s-a-person-too way we were instinctively parenting our little one.

One of my parenting advice heroes, Laura Markham, talks about ‘positive parenting‘ and means pretty much the same thing, as far as I can tell. LR Knost calls it ‘gentle parenting‘, Lucy AitkenRead talks, among other things, about ‘child rights‘ and no doubt there are plenty of other ways to describe what we’re doing.

(There’s an excellent, short, well-linked introduction to gentle parenting here.)

This blog post started when we were anticipating having a student nanny (the arrangement didn’t eventuate) and I needed to think about how to a) explain our approach and b) give her some tools – almost a phrasebook – for how we like to speak to our kids.

This is just one aspect of respectful communication with kids, so there’ll no doubt be much more to say another day. But today, here are some ways to get kids on board without ordering them around, ways to stop saying ‘no’ and ‘stop’ and ‘don’t’ so much when talking with kids, and what to say instead.

Heaps of alternatives to yelling NO to your kids :) | Sacraparental.com

Why stop saying ‘stop’?

When I was in Standard 3 (for 8-9 year olds) at St John’s Hill School, our teacher gave us a positive communication challenge. We needed to write a list of school rules, putting them all in positive terms.

So we couldn’t say Don’t litter or No littering. Instead we had to go for something like Put rubbish in the bin or Be a tidy Kiwi. It was a mind-bending, difficult exercise for the whole class. Our whole culture is much better at saying Don’t! or Stop!

But this skill, of couching instructions or suggestions in positive language, is extremely useful as a communication strategy, and especially so with young children. And when it comes to connecting with a little person whose speech is still developing, we could all benefit from breaking down as many communication barriers as possible.

The idea behind this isn’t just some PC-gone-mad, we-should-all-be-cheery-and-positive vagueness. It’s about how a young child’s brain works (and the brains of plenty of adults too, actually).

As Miss Faith at Joyful Toddlers writes:

We all think with imagery, and children even more than adults. If I say, “Don’t run in the street,” what’s the image that comes into your head? Now, how about if I say, “Please walk straight along the sidewalk.” The word “don’t” is a modifier that is very weak compared to the strong image created by the rest of the phrase. This is why, if you say “Don’t jump in the puddle,” the average two-year-old will go directly to the puddle and jump in it, and be slightly puzzled as to why you’re annoyed.

[Read more at Joyful Toddlers.]

So if we can get in the habit of telling our kids what we do want them to do, we’ve got a better shot of communicating effectively so our message actually goes into the brain of our little listener.

It’s not just about changing your phrasing from don’t to do. We can also give kids extra information and motivation, with concrete ways to solve problems, and concrete reasons for behaving in a useful, sensible way. We can give kids tools to make it as easy as possible for them to choose to do things in a wiser or less damaging way.

Kids are people, too: Would you speak like that to an adult?

The fact that positive phrasing is a really effective communication technique may be enough motivation to give it a go. I do think there’s more to it, though.

I’m not just trying to stop sounding like I’m ordering my kids around, I’m actually trying not to order them around, as much as possible. I want us to be a team that does things together, and a family of kind people who treat each other well.

You may or may not be surprised to discover that this has indeed happened! We have plenty of frustrations and hard days, but we really do feel like we’re on the same team together. My 3.5 year old will tell you that ‘we make a great team!’ and ‘we are good at solving problems together!’ and it’s true.

Gentle parenting has built up trust inside my little guy that we are always on his side and keen to make things work for everyone. We do our very best not to impose arbitrary controls on him, and to take his wishes, preferences and urges into account in family decision-making. We are generous with explanations, reasons and background information, so he knows why we are wanting to do things however we’re proposing.

We have found that once you’re in the swing of things, and in the habit of treating a small person like a real human being with as many rights as an adult guest in your home, it’s not that hard to find win-win solutions to most problems that present themselves.

Even with the best and kindest parents in the world, most kids will be on the receiving end of an order, command or direction hundreds of times a day. Seriously. Start counting back through your last half hour of interactions and see how many times you say things like:

  1. ‘Time to get up!’
  2. ‘Hop down, please.’
  3. ‘Put that away.’
  4. ‘Get your bowl from the cupboard.’
  5. ‘Wash your hands, please.’
  6. ‘Don’t forget your shoes.’
  7. ‘Come here.’
  8. ‘Wipe your face.’
  9. ‘Don’t do that.’

That’s all very ordinary conversation stuff, right? It’s probably all said with a smile and no one’s upset. But don’t you think it adds up? I bet the average small child gets at least a few hundred orders a day. And heaps of them don’t need to be orders – either as a matter of communication, or as a matter of hierarchy.

They’re orders, for most of us, because it’s just easier, and we can get away with it. We couldn’t talk like that to adult friends in our homes. We’d have to use a few more words to invite them to get on board with what we’re proposing. We’d also have to be prepared to be turned down. But kids? Cultural norms let us issue orders to kids all day long, about big and small things. But cultural norms are made to be challenged, as far as I can see :)

Parents of small kids are still ‘the leader’ in the relationship at least some of the time – though perhaps we don’t need to be nearly as much as we tend to. For times when we, as parents, are initiating action – trying to get the show on the road, the dinner on the table, the bacteria washed off, the toys put away – we can use positive communication phrasing to (as I say to my three-year-old a lot at the moment) invite, rather than command.

We could easily change all of those benign orders in that list into friendly invitations to teamwork:

  1. ‘Shall we get up now?’ (with the understanding that the answer might be yes or no)
  2. ‘When you hop down, we can go and get ready for our trip.’
  3. ‘Shall we put these away so no one trips over them?’
  4. ‘I’ve got the muesli and the milk – can you please get your bowl? Then we’ll have everything we need.’
  5. ‘You’re getting good at remembering to wash your hands, aren’t you! Do you want me to turn the tap on for you or will you do it yourself?’
  6. ‘We’ll all need shoes today because it’s so cold. Where are yours?’
  7. ‘Your face is covered in smoothie! What shall we do about that?’
  8. ‘I’ve got something I want to talk to you about. Do you want to come and hear it?’

And as for #9: ‘Don’t do that’, well, that’s really what the rest of this post is about. So without further ado:

What to say instead

Getting rid of ‘don’t’ and ‘stop’ really takes practice and forethought, I’ve found. This section of the post is just about saving you some brain-power. You know, that thing you used to have before you had kids?

(For much more detail on dealing constructively with challenging behaviour or fragile moods, check out Lucy’s excellent post on non-violent communication and mine on hard days with little kids. This post is more for the little quick interactions that aren’t particularly problematic.)

 

Heaps of alternatives to yelling NO to your kids :) | Sacraparental.com

[Pin this for later!]

I’ve needed to do some serious thinking about what the positive communication version of a kneejerk ‘stop!’ or ‘don’t!’ is in everyday circumstances. Friends and I have talked about how it’s good in theory, but hard in the moment, to go from our instinctive ‘stop doing that new thing I’ve never seen you do before but is clearly a bad idea’ to a positive communication version of it.

To give you some shortcuts, here are some real phrases we say – or try to – instead of the more automatic ‘stop doing x’, in our house. I’d love you to add yours in the comments, please!

In brackets I’m putting an abbreviated example of a ‘don’t’ or ‘stop’ command that each one can be used in place of, just to make the context clear. I’m not suggesting that the only alternative to the positive version is the hard-line one in brackets!

‘Kind words, please.’ (Instead of ‘don’t speak like that.’)

‘Let’s try five belly breaths.’ (Instead of ‘stop crying/whinging’ or even instead of ‘calm down’ – which a) is quite an abstract concept and b) seldom works for adults or kids!)

‘Cutlery is for your mouth, remember?’ (Instead of ‘stop banging your fork on the table.’)

‘Outside is a good place for being loud.’ (Instead of ‘stop shouting/blowing that whistle/banging that drum.’)

‘Look after our walls, please.’ (Instead of ‘stop banging that broom handle on the wall.’)

‘Remember to use your gentle hands.’ (Instead of ‘don’t be so rough’ or ‘stop hitting.’)

‘We always need to look after the baby.’ (Instead of ‘don’t hit the baby!’ – and said while kindly removing the baby from the kid’s reach, or vice versa.)

‘Why don’t you ask if you can use it when she is finished.’ (Instead of ‘don’t snatch.’)

Of course, you can also add in a generous sprinkling of pleases, thank yous and darling-sweetie-pies to your new scripts.

What are the things that you find yourself saying in a negative/stop/don’t kind of way? Are they covered by ideas in this list or not? Let us know in the comments what else we can dream up that might connect better with your kids.

Open questions are also good

Open-ended questions (where we’re not dictating the answer: see below) can also be a great way of interrupting unhelpful behaviour and letting a child think about how to do things differently:

‘What could you say to her instead?’

‘How can you solve this problem?’

And often it’s even better to pair these questions with some empathy so your child knows you understand their frustration:

‘You really want to play with that, don’t you. What could you say to her instead?’

‘Are you feeling frustrated when the tower falls down? How can you solve this problem?’

‘You’re really enjoying drumming! What things can you hit that won’t cause any damage?’

One great result of this kind of communication technique is that you’re giving the child something else to think about. They need to stop thinking about grabbing/hitting/drumming to get their brain around the new question, which can be a really useful circuit-breaker for the unhelpful behaviour.

26 alternatives to NO! to help communicate with little kids | Sacraparental.com

What about leading questions?

Like us, you probably also use leading questions some of the time: ‘Do we do that in our family?’ or ‘Are you allowed to climb on the dining table?’

I think these need to be used carefully. They can work well when they’re a routine reminder of something really obvious that you’ve all been practising for a while – just a memory-jogger.

The risk is that leading questions – where you already know the answer – can end up shaming the child. It can sound like ‘I know you know this and yet you’re doing the wrong thing – what a bad kid!’

Questions like this can also sound like unfair cross-examination, where we are forcing a child to respond in a particular way. The answer we’re expecting is obvious and pre-chosen, so we’re controlling what they say back to us. So if our kids want to assert any kind of control over their own speech, we’re pushing them into lying to us or being cheeky at a time when we, at least, are very much not in the mood:

‘Are you allowed to hit your sister?’

‘Yes!’

Another version that can be more helpful than a closed question – again, if used sparingly, and with a smile, that  – is a ‘finish my sentence for me’ approach:

‘Cutlery is for your…?

‘The best place for shouting is…?’

Kids learn what they hear

One of my great joys is hearing my little guy use positive communication techniques himself. He only knows what he hears (from us, from friends, from, erm, Jake and the Neverland Pirates…) so the more we make sure our speech to him is respectful and positive, the more he does the same to us and other people.

At the moment, we often have this:

SBJ, to friend/auntie/anyone near: ‘Play tents with me!’

Me: ‘We invite, instead of command, right?’

SBJ, in a very sweet voice, to his intended play minion: ‘Do you want to play tents with me?’

My other favourite is that we’ve given him kind and polite versions of some common phrases that kids often use that wind us up. So if he doesn’t like a food he’s offered, he will almost never say ‘yuck!’ but instead,

‘That’s not my favourite.’

We all know what it’s code for, but we all also know that saying ‘yuck’ about food will usually hurt someone’s feelings.

He also puts positive communication phrases into practice with his baby sister, including my favourite that I learned from Auntie Lou:

‘Just for looking!’ (Instead of ‘don’t touch that.’)

(There’s also plenty of ‘Wheeeeeeere’s my spoon!?’ as I just heard, right this second, from the dining room, and ‘Mama! Come here! MAMA! COME HERE NOW!’ so I don’t mean to pretend he’s a perfect little model of refined speech.)

26 alternatives to NO! to help communicate with little kids | Sacraparental.com

My questions for you!

What else? What have I missed and what can you add? This post is intended as a conversation starter and memory-jogger, as much as anything, so please leave a comment below with your thoughts.

What are your magic words?

What great phrases give win-win solutions for your family?

How do you use language in everyday conversations to reinforce your parenting or family values?

How have you changed how you speak to kids over the years?

Please do leave a comment with your tips and advice. I’m always on the look-out for more ideas!

A warm welcome to new readers! Yay! 

If you want to keep in the Sacraparental loop, for more cool stuff on social justice, parenting and spirituality, you can get emails whenever there’s a new post here by signing up at the top of the right-hand sidebar, and/or also follow us on Facebook (for extra links and resources, daily), Pinterest (for link-plantations) and Twitter (for occasional ranting and raving). 

In particular, I have Pinterest boards on Emotional Literacy and Gentle Parenting.

You can also check out other posts on thoughtful parenting, especially:

And you can pin this image for later:

26 alternatives to NO! to help communicate with little kids | Sacraparental.com

 

Do you want to use one of these shiny sharing buttons?

51 comments on “Gentle Parenting Tips: 26 Things to Say to Kids Instead of ‘Stop’, ‘Don’t’ and Other Commands”

  1. Ann Reply

    I like to try and look my children in the eye when I speak to them, so I try as much as possible to lower myself to their eye level. I find whatever it is I have to get across is much easier that way. So I say something like, “Could you please look at Mummy?”, then I wait until they do, and then say whatever I want to say.

    Regarding the sharing challenge, I often say, “I think it’s time for the buzzer. Let’s put it on for 2 min, and when it rings, it’s time to swap/to give it back/etc”.
    Ann recently posted…What the F(ish)?My Profile

  2. Tim Reply

    Great thoughts. And along these lines, I remember how many of the ‘problems we were having with our third child’ were resolved when we changed our language as parents.
    But with our large family I’m still learning and needing to be reminded of these kind of things.
    Thanks!

  3. Daina Reply

    I think I need to print these out and stick them on the wall. It’s so easy to resort to the default I-am-the-Mum-obey-me-NOW tone, especially at the end of the day when everyone is getting tired and a bit cranky! Thanks for the reminder!

  4. Kirsty Reply

    Instead if “telling off” my 18 month old for something, we ask him if he can do something. A big one is when he’s at the table banging his fork or dropping food, we ask him if he can show us how clever he is with putting a food item in his mouth with the fork (always said with amazement as gets the best reaction from him). Same with tidying up. If I get down on the floor and make it seem fun, he will help tidy up with me – “how many blocks can we fit in the truck?”
    We have started saying “no” and “stop” a bit too frequently for our liking, but they are reserved for safety things. His current favourites are the power outlets and the garbage bin, which he gets one verbal warning, one removal with verbal warning, and then comes the “no” or “stop”. But we always follow up with why he can’t play with them

    • thaliakr Reply

      It sounds like you are really thoughtful with your language, Kirsty! That’s awesome. Great tips.

      Yeah, I agree that keeping ‘stop ‘ and ‘no’ for safety issues is a helpful approach. I find when I use them sparingly, they have more effect!
      thaliakr recently posted…Refugees WelcomeMy Profile

  5. Samara Reply

    Thanks, It is nice to keep these in mind to help with respectful parenting :) A poster would be great. I find using sign language quite a nice way to communicate too.

  6. Ruth Reply

    Love your ideas and most will work with regular kids. I’m working with traumatized and ADHD kids and need to bring things across in 3 words or less. Having said that, I will use your suggestions when we improve to full, short sentences. Well done!

    • thaliakr Reply

      Great to hear from you, Ruth!

      That’s a really interesting point. So do you/could you use ‘positive’ short sentences, like ‘Gentle hands’ or ‘Just for looking’ (not touching) ‘Feet on the floor’?

      I’d love to hear more if you have the inclination.
      thaliakr recently posted…2015 Retrospective: Top Ten PostsMy Profile

  7. Kitrona Reply

    These are great! I think they’ll work well with my son, who has ADHD. We’re trying to use consistent phrases to demonstrate that this specific thing needs to be done, and this fits right into that. (Being gamers, we’re a bit silly and went with “would you kindly?”, as in “Would you kindly take out the trash?”)

  8. Eric Reply

    This works. My wife has been using it since our child was born. I just read the article. One interesting phrase we developed for why our child should leave something alone is “It is a working X. It’s doing its job”. For instance, why should you leave the salt shaker alone…because it is a working bear (image of the shaker). It is doing its job.

  9. nancy tinney Reply

    the u.s. government finally got on board with this concept, and now public service announcements (and billboards etc) no longer say “don’t drink and drive:” now they say “drive sober”. bi-i-i-i-g improvement!

  10. Ocean Reply

    Any experience working with kids on the spectrum (ASD, autism, aspergers)??
    I agree with the principles behind all of this. However, some of the stuff is a bit vague. They tend toward assuming the child will pick up on the ‘social code’ and comply through a desire to bond / please.
    So, i’m trying to find ways to preserve the spirit of the ideas here while still giving clear, unambiguous instructions suitable for the literal mind of an Aspie.

    I’m also slightly uncomfortable with trying to phrase a demand as a request. Sometimes something is non negotiable – it is a demand, so i don’t want to mislead by making it appear that it’s a request. Going to nursery is non negotiable. Going to bed is non negotiable. Eating enough food at dinner time is non negotiable….. for the simple reason that these things if they are allowed to slide have knock on effects that cause chaos and disruption, eating my patience in a downward spiral ending in tears (often mine and his!)

  11. thaliakr Reply

    I agree with you about not pretending something is optional. If it’s not optional, I wouldn’t say ‘Let’s do x!’, but I would still try to provide choices within the order, like ‘We need to put shoes on because the ground is sharp on the road, which ones do you want to choose?’

    I’m sorry, I don’t have any expertise with kids on the spectrum, but others here might. Or if you have a couple of particular scenarios, or ‘command’ phrases you’d like to re-work, I’d love to give it a go.
    thaliakr recently posted…Moving to Chiang Mai #2: Festivals and Feasts in the TropicsMy Profile

  12. Maggie Reply

    One thing I try my best to remember in the moment when my daughter is either demanding or whining that she wants one thing or another is to gently say, “Try again” – I will say it as many times as it takes until she responds in the way she knows she should.. (More positively, saying please, or without the whining!)

  13. Melanie Reply

    I love this and try to parent this way. The only thing I would add would be for things that aren’t optional don’t present it like they have a choice. Example I wouldn’t say, “Would you like to take your medicine now?” because that emplys they can choose to take it. I would say, “It’s time to take your medicine so that you can feel better.” To me it would be confusing to a child to say it like it’s optional then make them do it.
    Loved this read and it’s such a good reminder to treat children with respect and not like doormats we boss around. I cringe when I hear how some people speak to their children. I hope my children will always know they are loved and respected.

  14. Donna Reply

    I just tried the previous poster’s suggestion re: “it’s doing it’s job” and it worked great! Instead of saying – no you can’t have the remote,or Mommy’s phone, etc- we say “it’s doing its job – let’s give it time to finish and find something else to do for now. Works great!!!!

  15. Jenn Reply

    These are really useful; thank you. Any thoughts on positive ways to approach tooth brushing? I’ve tried lots of ways to make it fun, give her some control, and offer choices of brush, paste etc, but it seems to be one area where I need lots of tools in my parenting toolbox! I’m probably tense because it is the big non-negotiable that she can refuse, and since I have sore teeth myself, it pushes my buttons when she refuses. She’s 14 months, but any suggestions welcome!

    • Robin Reply

      At forteen months, I would say dont worry. She has many years to go with these teeth. This is a battle that will get easier over time, as you continue the routine. Even if she makes an attempt, it is good enough right now. Have you tried one of those toothbrushes that light up for the amount of time they should brush? Dont worry about the time aspect, just a fun toothbrush. How about a sand timer? Or some kind of timer that she likes, that she only gets to turn on when she brushes her teeth? A special kiss(butterfly kiss, eskimo kiss) or secret handshake or something that you only do when done brushing? Good luck!

  16. Susan Harrison Reply

    I appreciate the reminders, and especially the spirit of the reminders, which is warmth and respect while providing guidance. The “would I say this to an adult” test is really helpful, because we soft-shoe most of our requests to our friends out of respect, as you say. It’s hard on any one to be given orders all day. And kids need to feel competent too, not like they’re always failing. Thanks so much for food for thought for tomorrow’s day with children!

  17. Pingback: 10 Thoughtful Ways Parents Can Choose Empathy over Explosion - Parent Co.

  18. Savannah Reply

    Wonderful, wonderful reminder! My son is 15 months old, and I often instinctively find myself saying “No” or “Don’t do that.” I really think it’s important, even if he doesn’t yet understand me, to explain myself to him, and talk to him like a person. I like thinking of it like “Would I say this to an adult” because that really gets my mind set straight. Thanks so much for sharing <3

  19. Yvonne Reply

    Great post and a good reminder about the language we use. One thing that I must admit I struggle with is the word ‘kid/s’ I think it sounds less harsh/more respectful to say child/ren. Just my thoughts. I’d be interested to know what others think.
    Thanks
    Yvonne

    • thaliakr Reply

      Hi Yvonne, thanks for your comment. Yes, for some people kids/children is a difference in respect as you suggest. For me it’s the other way around – ‘kids’ is a term of affection and informality. I think different people choose the words for different reasons.

  20. May Bee Reply

    I’m a single, green(ish) mom to a two-year-old wild child. And I especially LOVE this. Another fantastic write up about the topic of toddler negotiating. There is that and then there is this post. Wonderful advice for mamas like me who have a Bossy at home whose favorite words lately are “no”, “go” (pointing in the direction I should head), and “mine”. Honestly, I hate “mine” and all my life steered away from possessive descriptions especially when it comes to actual, physical possessions. Maybe I’m unaware of my use of it? Maybe it’s Daniel Tiger (yeah, we watch from time to time). Thanks for some ideas on what to say to her when she gets into a mood and is tired of my overlordship. Have a great day, dear!

  21. Pingback: Learning together – Tea & Oranges

  22. Jane Reply

    This is great but what do you suggest for safety issues? My 19mo wants to play with the fireplace, electric sockets, fans, hits windows and glass tables with toy cars etc. What do you suggest we say in these situations as he often does it for attention now as he knows he is doing things he shouldn’t?

    • thaliakr Reply

      Hi Jane,

      Oh, that’s hard, isn’t it!

      I tend to think the STOP and DON’Ts can be best saved for serious situations – and the things you describe certainly count! If we cut down on that language for everything else, it can have more impact for safety.

      But you might also like to try low-key responses for things like hitting the cars on the glass:
      – windows are fragile, buddy (as you gently move his body away from doing it)
      – away from the socket, darling, let’s go and build a tower!
      – remember to stand well back from teh fireplace, love. Come and sit with me here and have a snuggle/high five/tickle.

  23. jessica Reply

    as a veterinarian, i ask my clients to use the words ‘oops’ or ‘uh oh’ instead of ‘no’ when their dog or cat displays unwanted behavior. could certainly work with kids, too!

    • thaliakr Reply

      Hi Tracy!
      I’ve put lots of the phrases into the long infographic poster at the bottom of the post. Otherwise, do feel free to do some copy and pasting and make one that suits your household. All the best!

  24. Jan Thorne Reply

    When my children were younger, I would identify for them what were good manners. Then. I would remind them, using good manners and kind requests was the right way for them to ask and also presented their request in away that others wanted to do for you what you wanted or needed in a happy way. Sometimes, I would remind, “Manners are the happy way of doing things.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge

UA-34935453-3