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.
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:
- ‘Time to get up!’
- ‘Hop down, please.’
- ‘Put that away.’
- ‘Get your bowl from the cupboard.’
- ‘Wash your hands, please.’
- ‘Don’t forget your shoes.’
- ‘Come here.’
- ‘Wipe your face.’
- ‘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:
- ‘Shall we get up now?’ (with the understanding that the answer might be yes or no)
- ‘When you hop down, we can go and get ready for our trip.’
- ‘Shall we put these away so no one trips over them?’
- ‘I’ve got the muesli and the milk – can you please get your bowl? Then we’ll have everything we need.’
- ‘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?’
- ‘We’ll all need shoes today because it’s so cold. Where are yours?’
- ‘Your face is covered in smoothie! What shall we do about that?’
- ‘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.)
[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.
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?’
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.)
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!
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You can also check out other posts on thoughtful parenting, especially:
- Hard days with little kids: 11 tips I’m trying to remember
- Jamie Oliver and I are not on the same page
- Six ways kids can change the world
- Magic Words, a series on (other people’s) brilliant phrases to add to your repertoire
- A series I love, called Making Parenting Easier.
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