Changing your words can change your child’s behavior

When you go to school for early childhood education or child psychology, one of the biggest things they teach you is how you phrase things can make a huge difference in the behavior outcome you get from a child. 

Now, let me put out a disclaimer that children are humans and not robots, so nothing is going to work 100% of the time for every individual child. However, I can say, from years of experience with many children, these slight changes to your phrasing make all the difference and more parents need to have these “hacks” in their tool belt!  

Below are a few key ones to practice. And I say “practice” because you’re going to catch yourself reverting to your old wording a lot. I still do after years of doing it.

So be patient with yourself, acknowledge when you flubbed it, and try again next time.

If it’s not a choice, don’t phrase it as a question.

Young children love making choices. They’re figuring out what makes them an individual and where they can make decisions for themselves.

So one mistake I see parents make a lot is phrasing something as a question when the child does not actually have the option to say ‘no.’

For example, “Want to go get ready for bed?” or “Can you go wash your hands before dinner?” In these instances, you’re giving the child a choice of “yes” or “no” and likely they're going to say “no.” Then you’ve created a battle that maybe didn’t need to be there. 

If your child needs to do something and it’s not negotiable, phrase it as a statement. 

Instead of, “Want to go get ready for bed?” try “It’s time to get ready for bed” 

Trying to get your child to do
something that you’re predicting might be a battle? Turn it into two choices. 

One of the most effective ways to get your child to do something they probably wouldn’t normally want to do is to give them some authority over it.

Like I said, children love making choices. If you think about it, most of young children’s lives are directed by adults. Someone else is deciding where they’re going to go, what they’re going to do, for how long, etc. So giving your child a chance to exercise some control over their own day is extremely helpful.

With this trick, you think of two options stemming from the thing you need the child to do. And remember, these need to be things your child can actually choose to do. 

Let’s go back to the “It’s time to get ready for bed” example. If you have a child that you know typically fights going to get ready for bed, a simple statement might be met with resistance. Here are some choices you might use instead:

“It’s time to get ready for bed. Should we stomp up the stairs like a bear or tip toe like a mouse?” 

“It’s time to get ready for bed. Do you think you want to wear your dinosaur pajamas or your Paw Patrol pajamas?” 

And if the more fun questions don’t work, you can resort to “It’s time to go to bed. Do you want to walk up the stairs or do you want me to carry you?” 

Tell your child what you want them to do, not what you don’t want them to do.

Another common thing parents often do is to tell their young child to stop doing something. For example, “Stop running” or “Don’t stand up on your chair” or “Don’t color on the table.”

This typically doesn’t work for a few reasons. When young children are in the middle of an action (especially a really exciting one), their brains are very tuned in to the action.

When you’re saying “Stop running” for example, a child’s busy brain is likely focusing on your word “running.” They might get that you’re not loving something they’re doing, but the action is so highly rewarding that this phrasing is not going to get through.

That phrasing also doesn’t tell a child what to do instead, which is a huge key here. If you’re wanting your child to stop but they don’t know what to do instead, they’re likely going to ignore you. 

So instead of “Stop running” try “Use your walking feet.”

Instead of “Don’t stand up on your chair” try “Put your bottom on your seat.” 

Instead of “Don’t color on the table” try “Keep your crayons on the paper.”

If children are playing together, tell them to “take turns” instead of “share.”

The action of “sharing” is a pretty confusing idea. In cases where children are playing with something that can literally be torn in half, like playdough, the idea of sharing makes sense. But in the case where both children want to use the same truck, for example, the idea of sharing makes little sense to them.

I usually see children in the middle of a blowout over a toy and an adult saying “You need to share!” To a young child, they’re thinking “What? You want us both to drive the truck at the same time? How would that even work?” or they’re thinking “Yeah, he does need to share and give me that truck.” Either way, the fighting usually continues. 

The idea of taking turns is much more tangible to a child and really gets to the heart of what needs to happen – one child will use it and then the other child can have a turn.

In the beginning, most children will need help negotiating who gets the first turn, but changing from “share” to “take turns” is a huge first step.

Meaghan Penrod has her BA and M.S. in child development and works in Connecticut doing developmental therapy for young children. 


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