My son was 4 when his sister was born, and from the moment he met her he couldn’t resist the urge to squeeze her little baby cheeks in his hands. He did this dozens of times every day — sometimes with a little too much gusto. Then she would squeak and I would come running, hollering one word: “Gentle! Gentle!”
It wasn’t the first word that popped into my mind. Or the second or the third. Those were “no,” “stop” and “Get away from her!” But I choose “gentle,” and I had to say it so often it soon became automatic.
I didn’t always say “gentle” in a sweet, approachable tone or with much — if any — patience. But if I’d learned one thing from my teacher training, it was that you should tell kids what you want them to do instead of what not to do. They’re more likely to heed your words, and you’re spared from having to run around all day shouting “no,” which is just a drain for everybody.
“No one wants to hear ‘no’ all the time. It can feel harsh and punitive and lead to disconnection in the relationship,” Jazmine McCoy, known on Instagram as The Mom Psychologist, told HuffPost.
Parent coach Kristin Gallant and child therapist Deena Margolin, who run the Big Little Feelings Instagram account, noted that the language we use is important in light of the fact that kids’ brains are still developing.
“The way we respond to our kids builds their brains and their coping skills. The way we talk to them becomes their inner voice, so our language and the way we interact with them matters. If we want to raise compassionate problem-solvers, that starts with us as parents/caregivers,” the duo told HuffPost in an email.
I’m not sure if my son remembers me telling him to be gentle approximately a thousand times a day back then, but he has grown into a teenager who doesn’t go around pinching or hurting people. His sister also survived those early days without any scars.
Here are some ways that you can reduce the number of times a day you’re saying no, and other tips for using positive language when it comes to kids’ behavior.
Clarify what behavior you want to see.
Though our automatic response when our kid is doing something wrong is to tell them to quit it — and there are certainly urgent situations in which it’s appropriate to yell “no!” — this can be confusing for kids, who might not understand what it is that you want them to do. In the case of my son pinching his sister’s cheeks, I didn’t want to prohibit him from touching her — but I did need that touch to be softer.
“Focusing on giving clear instructions helps improve their cooperation,” McCoy said.
Instead of reacting immediately with a directive, take a moment to pause and really think through what it is that you need your child to do. When possible, it’s also nice to give them options. Doing so boosts the odds that they’ll take you up on one of them.
McCoy suggests that we ask ourselves, “What do I need them to do differently and how can I make sure my language is as clear as possible?” For example, if your kid is running around making too much noise, you might conclude that you want them to slow down and walk, switch activities or go play somewhere else.
In this situation, McCoy suggests you could say, “I need more quiet right now. Please either use your walking feet or play that game in your room or outside. It’s your choice.”
Of course, some situations don’t lend themselves to offering options. If you’re in a museum or a library, for example, you’d probably just say, “Please use your walking feet.” A phrase like this might feel hokey when you first try it out, but you’ll get used to it and may find it a relief to be able to stop yelling, “Don’t run!”
Of course, there will be setbacks. Kids don’t always shift their behavior when you try this. Gallant and Margolin admitted that they sometimes think, “This will never work, I’m just going to skip this step,” and then “magically” it does work — the kid slows down or stops throwing sand.
Here are some other phrases from McCoy, Gallant and Margolin that may come in handy when you’re trying to redirect common kid behaviors:
- “Please tell your sister what you need in a calm voice,” versus “Stop yelling!”
- “It’s difficult to understand you when you’re yelling. I need you to use your indoor voice.”
- “Splash the water over here,” versus “Stop splashing!”
- “Please keep the water in the bathtub.”
- “Please chew with your mouth closed.”
- “Please be gentle with the toys.”
- “Please use your walking feet.”
- “Keep the Play-Doh on the table.”
- “Chairs are for sitting. Bring your body down and put your bottom on the chair.”
- “Sand is not for throwing, sand is for buckets. See? Sand goes in the bucket.”
- “Food is not for throwing, food is for eating or staying on our tray.”
- “You have two choices: Eat your food or get down from the table,” versus “Don’t play with your food!”
- “You can either hold my hand or get in the shopping cart,” versus “Don’t walk off by yourself!”
- “Our bodies aren’t for hurting. Please use gentle hands with your sister.”
- “We watch tablets after dinner. Please put the tablet back on the table or I’ll help you.”
Give limited options.
Sometimes parents worry that if they let their children express preferences and make decisions, they’ll go to extremes, like saying if we can’t buy ice cream, let’s buy a pony instead.
This is where limited options are useful. If there are several alternatives, go ahead and offer them, but two options is sufficient. Don’t ask something open-ended, which is great for thoughtful conversations but less useful for practical exchanges. Saying, “What do you want for a snack?” opens the door for them to answer, “Hot dogs and cupcakes.”
Instead, ask, “Would you like apple slices or pretzels for a snack?” This way you’re giving them some control, which feels good, but not so much power that it will overwhelm them.
Validate their wants and feelings, and offer alternatives.
Lots of times, of course, kids will ask for things they can’t have at the moment. It can be tiring to keep denying these requests, but you can soften the blow by letting them know that you hear their wishes and, when appropriate, planning an appropriate alternative.
“It’s about validating their desire, explaining why it can’t happen in the moment (if necessary), making a plan for when it can happen and sticking with your promise,” McCoy said.
For example, she said, “That cookie does look yummy! Let’s have it after dinner.”
Or, “I know you really want to go to the park and you wish we could go now! I get it, and I wish we could, too! Let’s make a plan to go tomorrow after breakfast. What are you looking forward to most about the park?” Here you’re engaging them in a longer conversation about their desire, which will help them feel validated even when you have to deny their request.
The above response is a good example of Gallant and Margolin’s suggested method: (1) OK the feeling, (2) hold the boundary and (3) give a choice.
Another example might be: “I know you’re feeling sad about iPad time being over. It’s time to go outside and play. Do you want to play in the sandbox or on the swings?”
Of course, their reactions won’t always be great — even when you keep your language positive. “It’s normal for children to express their disappointment through tantrums, questions and protests. It’s OK for them to be upset with your boundary and for you to hold it anyway,” McCoy said.
You can acknowledge how upset they are without bending to meet their demands. “You can both hold the boundary and comfort them through their upset feelings,” Gallant and Margolin noted.
Try to keep going with the matter-of-fact statements, as calmly as you can manage, even when your kid is completely losing it. Gallant and Margolin offered the following examples:
- “You want to throw sand; I won’t let you. We’re all done with sandbox today to keep your eyes safe. We’ll try sandbox again tomorrow.”
- “Food isn’t for throwing; food is for eating or staying on our tray. Looks like you’re having a hard time keeping the food on your tray, so we’re all done eating. We’ll eat again at snack time.”
Deliver your response in a yes-no sandwich.
This is the method Gallant and Margolin recommend for denying kids’ requests. “The yes-no sandwich will help you avoid power struggles,” the pair explained.
“Instead of giving a flat-out ‘no,’ you simply sandwich the ‘no’ between two ‘yes’ responses.” For example, they said, “You want to go to the park. That sounds like a great idea! We have to go to school today. Let’s go to the park tomorrow, and we can play on the swings!”
Use directives, not questions.
Many of us are in the habit of phrasing a request as a question in order to sound polite, as in, “Would you mind passing me the salad dressing?” Women in particular are socialized to couch their demands in hesitation and self-doubt. But phrasing requests like this can be confusing for kids. When you say something like, “Would you please stop hitting your brother?” it sends a mixed message. Are you telling them what to do or asking a question?
Coming over to where your kids are, maybe even taking the hitter’s hand in your own and saying “gentle hands,” sends a direct message. Your calm focus communicates that you’re serious more effectively than yelling at them.
Get close and down low.
It’s amazing how a whisper in their ear can be a thousand times as effective as shouting across the room.
As a general rule, the more agitated and loud your kids are being, the more quiet and calm you need to be in order to help them regulate themselves.
McCoy said that “when it comes to aggressive behaviors,” like hitting, “our body language will often do more of the ‘talking’ than our actual words.”
If your kids are fighting (as opposed to roughhousing in a manner that is safe, consensual and fun), “you want to focus on establishing safety, so come close and separate the children and establish eye contact,” McCoy said.
She continued, “It’s important to come close so that you can guide them through this interaction, especially when children are experiencing intense emotions.”
Kneeling down so that you’re on their level, face-to-face, also helps them see both that you’re serious and you want to understand what they’re feeling.
Save your big ‘no’ for serious situations.
Obviously, if your kid is about to run into the street, it makes perfect sense to yell, “No! Stop!”
“In a truly dangerous situation, kick it into gear immediately and hold firm safety boundaries. And that ‘no/stop’ holds even more power when we’re not overusing it in everyday life,” Gallant and Margolin noted.
The fact is that, as parents, it’s our job to say no to a lot of things.
“The pivotal detail is how we say no,” Gallant and Margolin explained. Giving a choice and the yes-no-sandwich, they said, “are great game plans for saying ‘no’ in a way that can prevent and minimize meltdowns.”
“Your kid might seem like they want to make all the decisions,” they said, but what makes them feel safe is actually “clear, consistent boundaries.” You can uphold these with less negativity and frustration by using the word ‘no’ sparingly and turning to positive language whenever possible.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story made reference to the “Little Big Feelings” Instagram account. The name is Big Little Feelings.