Negative and positive commands
boy in playgroundAs parents we need to remember that language directs attention. The fast-track to desired behaviour is us parents offering positive alternatives and telling children what we DO want.

Let’s suppose your child came up to you and asked you what you wanted for your birthday, and you said, “Well, I don’t want a lawnmower. Don’t get me that.” Then your child said, “No, really, what do you want?” You say, “Don’t get me a bracelet, and I really don’t want a watch.”

This is the position in which many of us put our children, frequently, when we tell them what not to do. Have you ever heard a parent say “Don’t spill your milk?” “Don’t pester your sister!” or don’t do this or that? These negative outcomes, or negative commands, focus the child’s attention on what we don’t want her to do, but don’t give the child an idea of what to do instead.

Here’s how negative outcomes work.

If I say “Don’t think of red cars with blue stripes”, what to you do? Most people immediately make an image of red cars with blue stripes. In fact, you have to do this in order to understand what I am saying.

If you tell your child “Don’t spill the milk,” the child has to think about what it means to spill the milk in order to understand you. The child might see milk spilling out of his glass, or feel what his hand would feel if the milk were beginning to spill. This actually makes it more likely that the child will spill the milk. If you tell your older child, “Don’t be nervous about your test today,” your child is likely to feel nervous as a way of understanding your words.

It’s very easy for us to tell our children what not to do. “Don’t run by the pool!” “Don’t fall out of that tree.” “Don’t drive recklessly.” “Don’t worry about your performance.”

Unfortunately, this increases the chances of our children doing what we don’t want, because it makes them think about it. It literally puts ideas into their heads ideas that we don’t want them to consider. This is particularly true with young children.

So what can we do?

Tell our child what we DO want instead of what we don’t want.

“Be careful with your milk glass, Dillon. Be sure all the milk stays in the glass.”

“Ace your test, Alana. Go for it!”

Parents frequently ask, “Is it ever useful to say what we don’t want?” Sometimes we can get an idea across better if we start by saying what we don’t want. This is particularly true if the child is already doing an undesired behaviour. After saying “Don’t do that,” to get her to stop, it’s very important to immediately tell our child what we do want:

“That’s too loud, Amy. I’d like to have you talk a little softer, like this (demonstrating with your voice), OK?”

This may seem simple, but for most of us, it takes careful reprogramming, to make sure our instructions are stated in the positive what we DO want. I remember many times with my children when I’d hear myself saying something like, “When you stop crying…” Hearing these words, I immediately thought about what I could say instead. How could I state what I wanted my child to do, instead of what I didn’t want? After intentionally “reprogramming” myself a number of times, this began to become automatic–more natural than the old way of stating what I didn’t want.

Children don’t learn by being told what not to do, they learn by seeing and hearing what to do.

Every time you don’t want your child to do something, offer at least one alternative that the child can do. Sometimes kids misbehave simply because they don’t know of anything better to do. If you just tell them to stop, they may continue to do it because they haven’t thought of anything more fun or interesting.

Examples always help to know how to put a method into practice:

Dillon, 2, is helping Sarah, 4, build a block tower out of blocks of many shapes and sizes. Sarah is making one block layer out of same sized blocks. Dillon is “helping” by adding blocks, however he is picking a block that is too small.

“Don’t put that small block there, Dillon. That’s too small.” says a visitor. Oblivious to the visitor’s instructions, Dillon continues to try to put the small block on the tower.

“Goes here.” he insists.

“Look Dillon, you can put this block there,” I say, picking up a larger block that would fit in Sarah’s construction. “See, it’s the same size as the other blocks.”

“Oh yeah.” says Dillon, accepting the larger block.

When Dillon got the suggestion in the negative “Don’t use that block,” he didn’t shift his behaviour. By showing him what he could use instead, he made a shift easily.


Mark, 6, and Sarah, 4, are busy working with clay in the kitchen. Dillon, 1 1/2, is busy climbing up on their chairs and grabbing their masterpieces. This is not popular with Mark and Sarah.

“Dillon, that’s Mark’s clay.” I gently remove Dillon from Mark’s chair. This sets a limit in a positive way while demonstrating nonverbal firmness.

You can be on your own chair, and play with your own clay if you want to.” I pull out a chair for Dillon and help him move over to it.

Dillon plays with his own clay for a while, and then gets more interested in grabbing Mark’s and Sarah’s clay again. “Dillon, that’s Mark’s clay. Do you want something else to do? Would you like to go outside and pick strawberries?”

Even if a child doesn’t want to do these activities, the examples help send his brain in a new direction, and he is likely to think of other possibilities. Of course I’ll be very responsive to other options that he thinks of.

Just because you redirect your child’s behaviour doesn’t mean the solution is permanent. A gentle reminder will usually work much better than getting impatient and yelling.

“Remember about doing something in the other room? Come here… If you play in here a little longer, you’ll be able to get your Christmas treats faster.”

The key word here is “remember”. You’re telling their subconscious mind to remember and reconnect with those visual and auditory thoughts of the desired behaviour they were doing earlier.

Adapting the Approach to Younger and Older Children:

Offering positive alternatives directs children to focus on positive options they have, not on what they can’t do. If you just say “No,” the child is likely to stay focused on limitations, and resent it, because he doesn’t yet know how to shift quickly to what he can do. With young children, it’s usually best to offer very specific examples that are easily understood.


Mark, 1 1/2, is sitting in his high chair eating. A butterfly flying outside the window catches his eye. Mark reaches his dirty hand toward the butterfly, “Hold.”

“You can’t hold the butterfly right now, Mark. But you can hold your spoon.”

This example may sound silly to a grownup, but to Mark at 1 1/2, who wanted something to “hold,” this was the perfect solution.

When we regularly offer positive alternatives, we are training our children to notice what they can do, which is much more useful and pleasant than thinking about what they can’t. As children grow older, we can ask them to think of positive alternatives. “Which of these toys would you like to play with?” “What else would you enjoy doing?” If they don’t start generating alternatives, we can always fall back on making specific suggestions. Soon the child will automatically begin to do this on her own, even when others outside the family say “Don’t” without offering alternatives.

Nonverbal Negative Outcomes:

Many studies have shown that nonverbal behaviour is much more impactful than verbal, particularly with small children. A negative outcome can also be expressed in voice tone. If a mother rushes to a child on a ledge and shrieks “Be careful! Be careful!” with terror in her voice, the negative outcome is expressed nonverbally. The child will respond to the mother’s terror, and begin to think of terrible things happening possibly more terrifying than what the mother is thinking of!

The message is very different if the mother says the same words calmly but directively: “Be careful, Eric. Watch your step, Eric. You’re next to a ledge, and you’ll be fine if you walk slowly over to me, now.” Then her nonverbal behaviour elicits responses that are parallel and support the meaning of the words.

Make Sure You Get The Benefit: Putting it into Practice

You can sensitise yourself to listen for the words “Don’t,” “Quit,” or “Stop,” in your vocabulary. Every time you hear this word come out of your mouth, ask yourself, “What DO I want instead?” and add that. You’ll be creating a more positive environment around you.

Here’s how you can practice now:

1. Make a list of things you tell your children not to do. Use the samples below as a stimulus to your memory.


  • “Don’t drop the groceries.
  • “Don’t drive dangerously.”
  • “Don’t feel bad about your grades.”
  • “Don’t be nervous about your algebra test.”
  • “Quit fighting.”
  • “Stop being so rowdy. You’ll knock something down running around like that.”
  • “Don’t be so noisy while we eat.”
  • “Quit pestering your brother.”
  • “Stop being jealous of Alana.”
  • “Don’t feel bad.”

2. For each thing not to do, say out loud (or write down) what you want instead. (Do this for yourself before looking at the possibilities below.)


  • “Make sure you have a good grip on the groceries. It’s easier to carry them if you put one hand underneath the sack.”
  • “Drive carefully.”
  • “Is your grade lower than you wanted it to be? What do you think you can do to get the grades you want?”
  • “I’m glad you studied so that you can feel confident about your algebra test.”
  • “I’d like you to find a way to share that toy.”
  • “Let’s play a slower and quieter game for a while.”
  • “Will you two move slowly and carefully in this room, so that you can watch to be sure these table centrepieces stay up?”
  • “I’d like to have you be a little quieter while we eat dinner.”
  • “I’d like you boys to find a way that you can both be happy.”

Stating what we do want offering positive alternatives doesn’t guarantee that we’ll get the response we want from our children. However, it gives us a much better chance, than if we only complain about what we don’t want!

Natasha Crestani and her psychologist husband Jason are directors of Inspired Honey, providing time and stress management and decluttering workshops to help you work and live more productively. Our next workshops in Melbourne are October 23. Check out the website for more info and your FREE eBook " How to Achieve MORE and Do It Quicker". E: