“How much more precious is a little humanity than all the rules in the world?”
– Jean Piaget
I’ll admit I haven’t yet entered toddler territory, but I do have a fast-growing boy nearing his first birthday. And with that has come an ever-moving, ever-exploring youngster. What joy to see the thrill of every detail throughout the day! What lessons he is teaching me about the wonder of a rock or the excitement of movement!
As he travels around the house, or holds any object he can get, the opportunity to say “no” is constantly present. “No, don’t go here. No, don’t go there. No, don’t touch that. No, no, no.” What a sad life to be told no all day long. What does the word “no” really mean? There’s no explanation other than negativity. I will even dare to say our infinite use of “no” can become a dead word that teaches nothing other than our authority over rules we create. Each time my child grabs something, goes somewhere, or does something I am not comfortable with, I challenge myself to choose new words.
In fact, the use of positive words in a child’s life can make a huge impact on their upbringing and the development of their personality as they get older. Even as adults, we respond better to positive encouragement and positive reinforcement better than we do constant negative reinforcement. Think about it- if your boss is constantly telling you, “Hey, this is terrible. You need to fix it/redo it/throw it in a dumpster fire because you suck,” you will probably not perform well at your job (and you might not even realize you aren’t performing at your best. Your mental health is very significant on your productivity so even if you don’t feel like you’re suffering, you might be (and so is your work)). But if you have a boss who is giving your praise or, in the least, helpful criticism, you will feel better about the work you are doing and you will be more likely to perform better with your work-related duties.
Related: The Guilt of Saying No
The same goes for children. Although they don’t have work-related duties (although, sometimes I feel like they should. Somebody needs to help pay for all these diapers, am I right?), their behavior and their personalities can change based on the type of language you use around them.
It doesn’t even start with toddlers who are starting to speak or already speaking. Even infants can be impacted by positive versus negative language. Early on in development, infants will begin to recognize facial expressions and they will associate those facial expressions with your tone of voice and your body language. The words don’t matter necessarily- it’s how you’re saying them (oh look. I am my mother’s daughter).
“Infants understand facial expressions even before they start communicating. They get affected by hearing shouting and yelling in the house. From the age of 2, they begin to respond to their parent’s communication,” says Counseling Psychologist Puja Alfred.
She goes on to say that, “Abusive and hurtful words that parents use affect all the areas of children’s lives. It affects their emotional, cognitive and social development. They grow up with feelings of ‘not being perfect’. They feel inadequate and blame themselves for being the cause of parent’s frequent reprimands and negative communication. They feel that they are constantly being watched with a critical lens. There is a feeling of being judged all the time.”
Negative language doesn’t always have to be this harsh, though. Many loving parents are not using emotionally abusive language towards their children and they are not yelling, screaming, or hitting their children in order to discipline them. But the idea of positive versus negative language is still present.
For example, if you are constantly telling your child not to do something or to stop doing something, they will have no positive reinforcement for the things they should be doing. Research has shown, over and over again, that positive reinforcement is what your child, or anyone, needs to be successful.
Another important thing to note that is your children are always watching you. You are their model for good behavior. If you are always telling them no or always telling them not to do something, this will play out in their behavior as they get older. Using manners and exemplifying the type of language and behavior you want your child to exemplify is crucial, even at a young age.
Here are some ways you can invoke positive language in your every day life with your child.
Thank you – If my son picks up a rock, for example, instead of “no” I say, “Thank you for picking up that rock. Can I see it too?” and I will take it away. Or maybe I will say, “Yes, that is a rock in your hand,” acknowledging the very act my son is performing. Saying “no” implies that picking up a rock is a bad thing, when in-fact it is not bad at all – instead our interpretation of picking up the rock and putting it in a mouth or dropping it on a foot is bad. If we look at picking up a rock through the eyes of a child, we see a refreshing perspective. Feel the weight of it. It is heavy. Look at the swirl of colors. This is actually an exciting thing. To say “no” squelches childlike imagination. Let’s not take this one example literally – there are millions of things we can use this example with – sticks, leaves, running… What does your child do that causes you to say no? Can you see it in another way? What can you say instead of no?
Wow – “You pulled the tissue out of the box! Wow, you are unraveling the toilet paper. Now I’m going to roll it back up.” We can choose to live our lives as authoritative bad-cops, or allow our innocent, awe-filled children to discover with our encouragement and care. Saying “wow” simply acknowledges that we are paying attention to what our children are doing, and this is often all they want – our undivided attention. This does not mean we condone unraveling the toilet paper; only we experience the moment in a different way. Life can be filled with countless battles or adventures. Is unraveling toilet paper going to be a battle or a moment when I can take the tissue and become creative? Maybe I blow my nose with it or use it to tickle my son’s cheek. We can allow annoyance to fester or playfulness to blossom.
You did that – This is affirming what my son is doing. I am not labeling his actions as “good” or “bad” which is subjective (opinion) but maintaining an objective state (fact). For instance, instead of saying “good job for walking,” I can instead say, “you’re walking! I see you walking towards me. Here you come!” Let’s ask ourselves, why do we believe walking is good? Does that make crawling bad? Why is throwing a ball good? Does that make holding it bad? Early on in our culture, we often subconsciously create subjective views on our children rather than maintaining unconditional love. We want them to know we are proud of them when they can walk and when they can’t, when they can eat solids and when they still take a bottle, when they learn to read and when they still aren’t quite there, because it is really not what they do it is who they are that matters.
That’s ouchy – There are times when, no matter how safe we try to make an environment, children may be harmed. Again, we have an opportunity here. Instead of getting upset, I can say, “That’s Ouchy! Let’s touch something else,” and show my hands moving away from the hot stove, drawer or the electrical outlet (even when safety latches are installed). I am showing, I am teaching, I am offering a reason why we are going to move away even if my son seems too young to understand. Our everyday experiences are life lessons – we do not need to wait until our children sit in seats and hear lessons from a teacher. We are the teacher. We must remember that each thing we say, each thing we do, from the moment our eyes open to the moment they close, we are teaching countless lessons to our all-absorbing dear ones.
One of the marvels of the human race is our ability to speak, communicate, and convey messages in our minds with our words. May we not take this gift for granted. May we see this as an obligation to pass along better communicators each generation. If children learn to eat and walk by our example, their quality of how they talk relies on what they hear from us. May we speak to and with our children, not at them. May we empower our children and give them respect, kindness, compassion, patience and love through the words we choose and how we deliver them. Remember they’ll be the ones using the words they learn soon enough.
These few examples are just glimpses inside the vast mindset of unconditional parenting. To learn more, I suggest beginning with Alfie Kohn’s award-winning book, Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishment to Love and Reason.
Keep the conversation going! What words do you use with your children other than “no?”