Why Kids Do What You Tell Them Not to Do? How to Prevent Defiant Children, Power Struggles and Tantrums
The “Before” Story usually sounds like this: My kids have been doing [you name it] for years. I constantly tell them “don’t,” “stop” or “quit doing that”. I’ve told them a million times and they still do it! I don’t know if they are defiant children, but I’m tired of the power struggles and handling tantrums.
The “After” Story usually sounds like this: I used this tool one time and they did what I wanted them to do, the first time I asked, and I never had that problem again. Now I use it all the time and it works every time the first time!
When you see your children doing something you don’t want them to do, the natural instinct is to tell them “don’t do that,” “stop/quit doing that” or state a rule that starts with, “No…” Right? And what do you usually get? Parent-deafness, defiance, power struggles or tantrums…right?
Well, here are a few things that science is starting to show us about how the mind interprets such negative commands:
- The mind operates in pictures. If I tell you to think of an apple, do you imagine the word a-p-p-l-e or do you see a round juicy apple that’s green or red? You picture the object, don’t you? The picture the mind creates is based on that person’s experience, so young children might not create an accurate picture unless you are very specific or use words they already understand.
- The mind doesn’t hear the negative words “don’t, no, stop, and quit.” It just hears the description of the picture and tries to make that happen. If I were to say, “Don’t think of a purple elephant.” What image would pop into your head? Exactly what I told you not to think about. With experience, adults learn to flip these negative commands, but young children don’t have this experience and have a hard time flipping them around.
- The mind doesn’t know the difference between a real and imagined event. You’ve experienced this when recalling an upsetting memory. You can get just as upset by the memory of the event as you were when it first happened.
- Whatever you create a mental picture of is more likely to happen. Think about Olympic athletes. Have you ever seen them rehearsing with their eyes closed? What are they imagining? Winning or performing well. Do their coaches say, “Don’t trip over the hurdles”? No. A coach says, “Go out there and imagine you’re as light as air, so you can leap over the hurdles.” That’s because they know the mind will try to create or do whatever it imagines.
Can you imagine getting an instruction manual that said, “Don’t put A and B together” or “Don’t do this or that?” No, it would say, “Take A, put it next to B and then put a screw in it.” It takes you through the steps of what to do, right? Well that’s what you want to do with children, give them clear directions.
As soon as you realize the effect of “don’t,” “stop,” and “quit” I guarantee you’ll notice every time you say it. Most parents say, “I must say those words a hundred times a day!” Some even say, “I can’t not say ‘don’t’!” Now if that triple-negative statement was difficult for you to decipher, imagine talking like that to a child! Is it any wonder they don’t comply?
Well here’s great news: There is a “miracle tool!” It’s no joke. Out of all 100+ tools that are in The Parent’s Toolshop® book, most parents think this is the number one, best-ever, Five-Star parenting tool that gets the quickest, most-permanent results. It is called “Don’t Say Don’t.” It could also be called, “Use Positive Words to Make Requests” because it includes avoiding the words, “Stop,” “Quit” and “No…” as the first word of a rule.
Back in the late 1980’s when The Parent’s Toolshop® was first being developed, this was the only tool I didn’t find in the research and had figured out on my own. Over the decades, 30 years and over 50,000 parents later, it remains the favorite tool of Parent’s Toolshop® graduates. Now, you can find this suggestion all over the place, from other experts offering tips for parents of defiant children, preventing power struggles, or handling tantrums.
First, here are four sentences that start with those four words.
- “Don’t spill your milk. “
- “Stop running.”
- “Quit whining.”
- A rule that starts with “no”: “No yelling in the house.”
Now, look at the list again. What behaviors are described, the positive or negative? Negative. The mind doesn’t hear the “don’t, no, stop and quit.” It just hears “spill your milk,” “run,” “whine,” and “yell in the house.”
That’s why, when you say, “Don’t run, you’re going to fall,” they run and fall. Then you probably say, “I just told you not to do that” and think to yourself, “Why did you do that? I don’t understand what’s wrong with you.” Now you understand why that happens.
You want to remove the negative word and describe the positive behavior you want to see.
So let’s “flip around” the four sentences above:
- Instead of “don’t spill your milk,” what do you want them to do? Yes, “Keep the milk in the cup” or “Use two hands to drink your milk.”
- Instead of “stop running,” what do you want them to do? “Walk.”
- Instead of “quit whining,” what do you want them to do? “Use words to tell me what you want.”
- Instead of “no yelling in the house,” what do you want them to do? “Whisper,” “talk quietly,” or “use your inside voices.”
There’s no one right way to say it, as long as you are telling the child what to do.
This tool is so simple to understand — yet one of the most awkward language skills to master. So practice it 24/7. It is guaranteed to bring amazing results if you invest the effort to learn, practice and master this skill.
To learn more about fostering cooperation in children, and other terrific tools for preventing common parenting challenges or responding effectively in seconds, get a free preview of The Parents Toolshop® Parenting Plan 2 Personalize 2 Your Needs. You’ll find it in our complimentary e-book, “The 7 Keys to Building a Healthy Family — From the Foundation Up!”
Jody Johnston Pawel is a Licensed Social Worker, Certified Family Life Educator, second-generation parent educator, founder of The Family Network, and President of Parents Toolshop Consulting. She is the author of 100+ parent education resources, including her award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop. For 30+ years, Jody has trained parents and family professionals through her dynamic workshops and interviews with the media worldwide, including Parents and Working Mother magazines, and the Ident-a-Kid television series.
Reprint Guidelines: You may publish/reprint any article from our site for non-commercial purposes in your ezine, website, blog, forum, RSS feed or print publication, as long as it is the entire un-edited article and title and includes the article’s source credit, including the author’s bio and active links as they appear with the article. We also appreciate a quick note/e-mail telling us where you are reprinting the article. To request permission from the author to publish this article in print or for commercial purposes, please complete and send us a Permission to Reprint Form.
Original source of material: Chapter 5: The Cooperation Toolset, in The Parents Toolshop® book.