In 2011, I started shifting away from negative language in my high school classroom to a more positive beat. It’s part of what I studied and researched throughout college. Even so, to my astonishment, I started seeing results almost immediately. As if I was holding some sort of magical potion, these teenagers started behaving differently and responding more responsibly.
Then I had my own kids. And I was tearing my hair out wondering why my toddler wouldn’t listen to me and I was so frustrated that when I would say stop, she wouldn’t stop.
Maybe shifting to positive language could work on toddler too. Maybe it was the super-secret magical solution for kids of all ages that could work. Even through teaching and learning all about adolescent development, I hadn’t equated it to my own family and my own parenting.
Related: Parenting without Saying No
But maybe, just maybe, if we tell our kids what we want them to do instead of what we do not want, then they’ll understand boundaries better and ultimately behave more appropriately. What happens within our brains when we hear a sentence, we focus on the first and the last few words.
Yes, of course, kids are going to behave as they wish no matter what we say, which is why building rapport and mutual respect through authoritative parenting matters.
What does negative language mean? What’s the difference between negative and positive language?
So maybe you’re asking “what is positive and negative language?” Going back to the basics of the English language, negative language most simply is a sentence that includes “no” or “not”.
However, in positive parenting it goes further than that. It includes any words that shift away from something including:
Positive language forces us as parents to ask our kids to work in unison with something. Therefore, when we shift to positive language we are working to help better define the world for our kids and help them understand what we want them to be doing instead of questioning why we told them to stop.Need some guidance on how to positively phrase directions for your kids?
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How to avoid negative language & what science says about how we process sentences.
The shorter our phrases are, the more direct, the more concise, and the more instructional they are, the better our brains comprehend them.
Using psychology, we can understand this through primacy and recency within the serial-position effect. Basically that we remember the things in the middle poorly. If we’re asked to recall any word in a list or a sentence, we’re most most likely to remember the first 2-3 words and the last 3-4 words (1). In fact, our short term memory has an average capacity of 7-10 like the length of a phone number.
This means we can avoid negative language by being more concise. Negative language almost always inserts extra words that don’t need to be said.
Negative vs Positive Language and why it matters when raising kids
Learning how to overcome negative parenting language directly impacts overcoming family negativity as a whole. Science says that complaining rewires our brains for more negativity (2) and so often the way we ask our kids to stop their behavior comes out as a complaint directed at them. So unintentionally inserting negative phrases into our parenting could have the unintended consequence of rewiring how our kids speak and how they perceive their world.
In the end negativity breeds negativity and positivity builds positivity.
There is not magic formula for the perfectly worded sentence that suits every family and every situation.
For us, we like to start with a please when applicable. Not because it’s a request, but because we’re modeling a polite behavior.
Using either please or their name is also an immediate mental trigger for them that what follows is something they are expected to do. It indicates a shift in their behavior, attitude, or other. It is a call to action.
Then I typically try to ask Jenn, Emma, or Rhett to do something in approximately 5 words with the most important word or words at the end.
“Please keep your hands to yourself.”
“Please hold my hand.”
“Please walk with me outside.”
“Please show ____ love.”
“Please use your words.”
“Maybe we can _____”
“Instead, let’s _____”
In moments of immediacy or danger, of course “NO! STOP!” are my go-to words. In fact, they hold so much more power when we’re not constantly using them.
Need help shifting to positive phrasing?
Over the last several years, I have talked to so many parents like you that need help with ideas on how to make their language more effective for stronger communication with their kids. Below you will find a 1-page free download with some scenarios and ideas on how to shift to more positive wording. By downloading, you will also get weekly updated from the Extremely Good Parenting team!
Click the “Alternative to No” preview to download:
More positive parenting resources
Kara is an author and advocate for positive, grace-filled parenting. She is homeschooler to her 4 children living in Boston, MA and believes in creative educational approaches to help kids dive deeper into a rich learning experience. She has her degree in Secondary Education & Adolescent Childhood Development and is passionate about connecting with and helping other parents on their journey to raise awesome kids!