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Choose Your Words Wisely

Choose Your Words Wisely - Grown Ups Magazine
Positive disciplinary techniques can keep you (and your kids) sane.

Choose Your Words Wisely - Grown Ups Magazine

Discipline stems from the word “disciple” and means “to guide with love.” In the truest sense of the word, discipline does not mean punishment nor does it refer to a battle of wills. Rather, an adult seeks to guide behavior through teaching and learning.

I know how that sounds: A wailing three-year-old will automatically cease the temper tantrum in the middle of a very public place with a firm, yet gentle “no,” and peace, love, and happiness will descend from the heavens? Not in the real world, I agree. But certain disciplinary strategies are more effective than others.

One of the big buzzwords in both education and parenting is “positive discipline.” It sounds like a weak attempt made by a naïve, timid, or overly optimistic parent, but research shows that with a little self-control on the parent’s or teacher’s end it is a rather logical technique. In fact, many schools utilize positive discipline as described by Jane Nelson in her book Positive Discipline. Many variations of positive discipline can be used, but the overarching theme is to maintain a kind and firm parenting style to guide behavior. Skeptical? Consider the following, which is one technique of positive discipline:

A warm, sunny day. Perfect playground weather. Life is grand until a barrage of pea gravel pours onto your head again and again.

Your urge is to say, “Stop throwing rocks!”

Positive discipline suggests that instead we grab the child’s hand (gently), help him place the rocks back on the ground, and say firmly, “Rocks stay on the ground.”

Say what?

Here’s why: Children’s developing brains are selective in that they only pick up on certain words or phrases. So when you say, “Don’t throw rocks,” the child is going to remember, “Throw rocks.” The behavior won’t change and may get worse. Telling children what to do with the rocks sends a new message to the brain, creating an opportunity for them to improve their behavior in a positive way. And while this kind of discipline takes a little while to get used to and to work, consistent use will reap rewards.

Can it be used for everything? Yes. Is it easy to use? Yes and no. Initially, it takes quite a bit of thought on the parent’s part to reword the redirections in a positive way. With practice, though, it starts to come easily. Here are some examples:

Instead of… Say…
“Don’t hit.” … “Keep your hands at your side/to yourself.”
“Don’t wet your pants.” … “Stop and use the potty when you need to.”
“Don’t run.” … “Walk beside me.”
“Quit yelling.” … “Use a quiet voice.”
“Don’t be mean.” … “We say nice things to our friends.”
“Don’t talk back.” … “I’d like you to say that in a different way.”
“Don’t go into the street.” … “Stay behind the sidewalk.”

Children may be so used to hearing what they shouldn’t do that it may surprise them when you tell them what they should do. Be consistent, be firm, and know that you are trying to guide with love. You may be surprised at the results.

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Grown Ups

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  • Bev F.

    I love this approach! My first “adult” job was working with children with autism. We took a similar approach, positively reinforcing them for the behavior we *did* want them to use. I agree, it’s hard not to say “don’t do ____”in the moment, but as I have worked hard to use the positive discipline approach when working with children with all types of needs, and I hope to be able to do it with my daughter as she gets older (right now she’s only 12 weeks old).

  • Cecile Pryor

    Great ideas! It is so easy to get into the habit of just saying NO or Stop all the time. Love your suggestions.

  • Barb@embracingthesecondhalf

    Interesting article. I’ve never really looked at the word “don’t” quite like that before. But it totally makes sense. The problem is trying to remember an appropriate response when usually the action requires a split second response. I’ll have to work on that.

  • Sandra Beeman

    As a student teacher many years ago, I was instructed by my very wise Master Teacher to use exactly the same style of correction you have described. It works well the majority of the time with almost all children. It is true that kids don’t always hear all the word in a directional statement. I know for sure they don’t hear when a person is yelling at them to make them behave.

  • Sweta

    I liked your words and would say these words instead of what my mouth says

  • Shannon

    These are all great parenting tips and thank you for sharing this article with us all.

  • Keithen Josef Hamilton

    instead of making it sound weak and to get rid of that “ya right, not in the real world” attitude they should call it correction discipline. Instead of telling a kid what not to do, tell them what to do instead. Food is only for eating. play with footballs outside

    • Jess

      See what you are saying. I think it sounds too confusable with positive reinforcement, for which many parents go out of their way with ‘offerings’ of distraction. And it is a more clearly and fully presented framework in the replying sentence, not always a directly related affirmation, either. The article emphasis still seems stuck on parents being gentler toned, yet children have varied demeanors and will rebel more at different ages, telling them what to not do or what to do, there are ages of more appeals and there are even ages of its irrelevance. Plus body language itself is a huge compounding element. Some of the suggested phrasings already come up for us, and likely many more parents, but accepting something off limits as off limits is not a bad lesson in discipline for a child. And in a situation where a toddler is set on throwing rocks, this rocks stay on the ground is no more peaceable, kind, calming or understanding to them. The appeal is not suddenly enlightening, or even over time. Maybe you take the rocks from their hands and redirect activity acceptably. That resolves and with consistency delivers too. But telling my 2 year old we do not jump so close on the bed and possibly on top of your 3 week old brother’s head, or beds are for sleeping only… well 1) there are situations when I want him to know it is safe to be creative 2) nothing will be instructively effective enough as separating the space at applicable times, dedicating a space and activity appropriate to him and not establishing or allowing negative circumstances. This is not a new notion. Being scolded gives an opportunity to think about how the behavior serves a relationship.

  • Jess B

    I love This!!!;p TY!
    This would be equally useful to learn how to chose more effective words for parents that have communication issues between each other. I notice that when I would like to share an Idea with My S.O He will Automatically interrupt because a word or topic rings a “Defensive Bell” and before I can finish I feel shot down on what I originally thought was a good Plan to an Idea that inspired me and motivated me. then the ripple effect is all negative…I often wish I had a pocket thesaurus because it is so true that something as simple as changing 1 word, or rewording can manifest from a happy couple to a divorced couple.
    Again I LOVE THIS!! Thank You for sharing this

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