"If I tell Ginny not to do something, she just looks me in the eye, and does it. She seems defiant." Sam, Ginny's dad, told me at a company picnic.
Ginny, an almost 4-year-old curly headed brunette, ran over from the swings at the park. "Ginny, how about playing a little game with me? I'm going to ask you to do some things like sit, stand on one leg or smile. Are you ready?"
Ginny eagerly awaited my instructions. She perfectly followed my commands to sit, walk, jump, hop on one leg, bend over, blink her eyes, pat her head, clap her hands and more. I then threw in a command "Don't jump." She looked at me with big eyes and then : jumped, followed by a grimace. I returned to giving positive commands. She again followed all my commands. Then I said, "Don't smile." Her eyebrows went up. She smiled and squealed, "I can't do it!"
I laughed with her and said, "Yes, the don'ts are hard to do."
As Ginny ran back to the swings, I ask Sam if he had seen what happened.
"Well, it looked like she just couldn't keep herself from jumping or smiling when you told her not to do those things," observed Sam.
"Did you see a defiant look on her face?" I ventured.
"Before, I thought it was defiance. Now I know it's confusion. Why is that?" Sam questioned me.
"Until about age seven, the brain hasn't developed enough to understand what 'don't' means and have rest of the body act on it. 'Don't jump' actually means 'do anything but jump. Life experience tells us it means, 'stand still.' It takes a lot of language experience to correctly react to a negative command."
"How can I change what I say to Ginny so she understands better?" Sam asked.
I told Sam that I could give him a list of positive statements. Also, I cautioned him that it takes a while to change our language patterns because we are so used to saying things like "Don't run," instead of "walk." From what I've observed in children, changing is worth the effort.
"Sam", I continued", "once you get used to stating commands in the positive, you'll find that you are clearer and more explicit in your instructions to everyone."
One mom, who took the time to use the following list, said her performance review at work highlighted her "ability to state things in a clear and positive manner." Not only had her child benefited, her co-workers had, too.
Use this list, along with modeling desired behavior, to help your child learn to "do the don'ts."
A short list of positive statements
Don't talk. - Please be quiet.
Don't run. - Walk.
Don't go that way. - Come here. Stay with me.
Don't touch. - Put your hands behind your back.
Don't forget. - Remember your jacket.
Don't wiggle. - Sit like this.
Don't play with your food. - Use your fork.
Don't throw that. - Stop. Put it down. Hand me that.
Don't play the TV loud. - Make the TV quieter.
Don't yell. - Speak softly. Use an inside voice.
Don't hit. - Use your words to solve your problems.
Don't make a face. - Smile
To make statements more positive, add please and thank you!
Next week: How to know when development is off track.