The Power of Saying What You Want

dont-do-itIn the Positive Discipline parenting course (in which Natalie and I were trained and certified as instructors last Spring…), there are a slew of different experiential activities  that instructors may share with parents in order to help underscore or increase the impact of various points in the course. This is, in fact, one of the wonderful hallmarks of Positive Discipline courses.  Several of the ones we encountered continue to stand out for me, not the least of which were two quick ones relating to how we talk to our children. I’ve written about the importance of how we speak to our children from a couple of different perspectives in the past, but I’ve been wanting to reiterate and home in on the aspect of positive speech, or what we sometimes call Law of Attraction Speak with Kids; and the PD experientials perfectly exemplify the crux of my thesis today. So, in brief…

The first one simply involves the instructor asking all the parents to stand and do as she asks them to do. Then she requests everyone to make the “ok” sign with one hand, and she demonstrates making a closed circle with her index finger and thumb with the other three fingers sticking up above, and holds it up for the others to see. Everyone complies. Then she says, “Now put the circle (made by finger and thumb) on your chin,” as she actually puts her circle on the tip of her nose. And immediately you can feel the disconnect in the air, as a room full of grown-ups try to instantaneously decipher this sudden mystery. Some struggle against all neurological odds to still… put… the… circle… on the chin. Many assume she must have said the wrong thing and simply comply with what they see her doing, regardless of the specifics of the request. And another sizable group is utterly paralyzed — they’re hoping someone clarifies their confusion before they have to commit to nose or chin, they’re holding “ok” signs bobbing up and down in front of their faces, dedicated to not getting it “wrong”. The instructor laughs and lets everyone off the hook, saying, “See how hard it is to ‘do what I say and not what I do’?”.

The second activity is similar, but an even better example of what I what to discuss today. The instructor lets everyone know that she is going to guide the parents through the next activity and they are simply to do as she requests. Then she begins to instruct them to do certain things with their bodies (standing, moving an arm, turning, siting back down, etc.) exclusively through “don’t” requests. “Don’t remain sitting.” “Don’t keep your left arm by your side.” “Don’t face me.” “Don’t keep standing.” And, of course, relative chaos ensues. No one can figure out exactly what she wants them to do or not do. They bumble around trying to guess what is intended while also trying to avoid what isn’t. Some of them, myself included, struggle with the overwhelming urge to disobey the prohibitions and/or do something other than what seems intended because the instructions don’t guide toward anything specific, they just guide away from the other thing (thus leaving lots of options besides what the instructor intends).

After the activities, the PD instructor always asks the parents, “What did you feel invited to feel or do when…?”. And even though I have long been a proponent of using positive requests (particularly with children), I can easily say that I never had such a clear sense of what it’s like to experience the opposite until going through these activities. Personally, I felt invited to rebel! I immediately wanted to do everything she said not to do. And I didn’t want to do what she was hinting at through her prohibitions. I wasn’t convinced of something new in this case, although I could see the faces of the parents/future instructors next to me who were; but I was, however, firmly convinced of something I had only guessed before. That is, our kids do/will have an easier time doing what we ask of them if a) we aren’t doing/don’t do the opposite, and b) we ask them to do what we want them to do (rather than asking them to stop doing what we don’t want).

Hopefully you can get a sense of what these experiential moments were like, and if not, feel free to experiment with these activities yourself. The truth is, we’re almost all built the same way in terms of how we receive information, what information gets precedence, and how we respond to instruction. Sure, the nuances of what actions we wind up choosing in such situations are a bit more idiosyncratic; we don’t all have as strong of a desire to rebel or do our own thing as, say, I do. But what most of us feel invited to do/feel in such situations is pretty much universal. Prohibition doesn’t feel cooperative, it doesn’t feel encouraging, it doesn’t even feel guiding. Aaaannd almost every human under 4-feet tall feels inspired by the idea of exactly what’s prohibited.

Go ahead — try and disagree!

You’ve seen them — if not in your house then everywhere else in the entire world — parent says, “Don’t play with that!” and the kid immediately tries to go back and get the thing, or begins to wail.

Or parent says, “Don’t go in the street!” and the kid immediately runs into the street, racing around the defensive-line parent.

Or parent says, “Stop shouting!” and the kid immediately goes back to eye-ball-splitting screams.

Or, “Stop throwing that at your sister!” and the kid immediately throws it another time, and more vehemently!

Or the parent says, “Don’t hit…” and the grinning kid immediately smacks the parent in the face again!

Or the parent exclaims from 30-yards away, “You better stop right there! Don’t you run from me!” and squealing with glee, the kid immediately runs off in the opposite direction…


Even if you rule your roost with an iron claw, you can’t get around this truism of human nature. Even if you have a “zero-tolerance for disobedience” policy set firmly in place, you can’t stop kids from wanting to do exactly what they are told not to do. And in any case, you can’t make it easier for your kids to do what you want them to do by making it harder for them to comply. Period.

There’s a bottom line, here, that I don’t want to step over, though it’s not the bottom line for the moment… That is — kids are designed, by their neural development and their psychological identification with their caregivers to do as we lead them to do. That’s just part of human biology. In the present case, however, this tendency shows up in two seemingly defiant ways.

First, when we tell our kids not to do something they may hear the “not” but what they hear a lot more of is the thing we’re asking them not to do. And like a light switched on inside their heads, suddenly the idea of the thing is put into their thoughts — “RUN FROM ME” shows up on a neon marquee, and “don’t” barely shows up at all. They are driven to be guided by us, far more than they are driven to be dissuaded by us. (Feel free to read that again if necessary…)

Secondly, we have been taught to use negation a hell of a lot. “Don’t do this,” “Don’t do that,” “Quit so-and-so-ing…” “Stop whatever you’re doing…” “Never yadda-yadda again…” — it’s almost all that most of us parents ever hear ourselves saying. We wear out our “No“‘s to the point of making them almost completely invisible. And we wind up shrinking their significance compared to the rest of the sentences they’re in even further. When we keep using negation and prohibition, we both undermine their power, and thwart our kids’ natural proclivity for doing as we lead them to do — a double-whammy that most parents continually have to slog through, simply because they created a disconnect in their kids understanding of parental leadership. Then the parents and kids are stuck in a cycle of prohibition, non-compliance, escalation, discomfort, and disconnect, which then leads to more antagonism and more vehement prohibition(s), escalation(s) and disconnect(s).

The bottom-most-line here is this: if we want our kids to do what we say, then we have to start saying (and doing) what we want them to do; and stop trying to tell them what to do by telling them what not to do. No matter what we want them to do, we want to become practiced at guiding them to do it by asking them to do it! In this manner, we work with our kids’ biology, and with their drive to follow us, and with the human brain’s propensity for processing information before/instead of negation.

It feels a little funny in your mouth at first, and can be a bit of Zen mind trick to make habitual. Our programming, and our culture, work pretty hard to keep us in the illusionary protected state of prohibition. We’re taught to think that the only way to say “No” is with “No”. But we can just as easily, and more successfully say “No” by saying “Yes” to the opposite. It sounds silly, but just try it and see how differently your kids react — or better yet, get someone else to try it on you and see what you’re invited to feel and do!


Need some help getting started? Here’s a list of common positive requests that we have and/or currently use:

On the Playground:
“Keep yourself safe!”
“Stay friendly!” or “Keep it friendly!” or “How do we keep it friendly?”
“Play gently with the little ones!” or “How do we play when there are little kids nearby/involved?”
“Let’s take turns!” or “Let’s let everyone have a turn!” or “How can make it so everyone has a turn?” or “Let’s let him have a turn now.” or “Can you find someone to share that with/give that to/ let have a turn with it?”
“She was playing with that. Please give it back to her.” or “Was she finished with that?”
“He’s still having a turn; let’s wait/play/go over here.” or “What do you want to do while you’re waiting for a turn?”
“Hey how about throwing the sand in this direction?”
“Let’s go up the stairs and down the slide for now…”
“Let’s stay together…”
“You want to run over there? Ok, I’ll wait for you here. Come back when I call you, ok?”
“Can you listen to her request please.” or “Let’s play in a way that feels good to everyone.”
“He’s not liking that, can you help find another way…?” or “Do you think he’s liking that?”
“It’s time to go, do we have everything?” and/or “It’s time to go, what do you want to play on the way (to the car or to the next thing…)?” and/or “It’s time to go, do your last, best thing!”

Around Prohibited Items (with the added caveat that all prohibited items that can be safely explored with parental guidance, should be at least once or twice):
“I’ve helped you check that out already/before, do you want to see it/check it out once more?”
“Let’s leave that here/there please.” or “Let’s find something better for play.”
“It’d be better to find something else to play with. How about this (holding up surrogate item)?”
“Let’s go this way please.” or “Stay with me please.”
“Is it safe to…?” or “Keep yourself safe.” or “Are you feeling safe?” or “What’s the safe way to explore/do this?”
“I’d prefer if we… (anything else).”

With Others:
“Keep me safe!” or “Keep her safe…” or “Are you keeping him safe?”
Instead of “Don’t hit!” — “Let’s pet him very softly… (showing gentle pets).” or “Can you show her how gentle you can be?” or “Gentle touches please.” or “Can you play softly?” or “She doesn’t seem to like that. Can you do something she likes?” or “… Can you find another way to play?”
Instead of “Stop shouting!” — “Can we keep everyone’s ears safe, please!” or “Can you play in a more quiet way, please.” or “Can you find your volume switch? (kids say, “Yeah?”) Ok, now let’s turn them (getting quieter…) waaaaay… down… (whispering) low.”
Instead of “Stop messing with your sister/brother!” — “Hey, I notice that you’re really needing some kind of interaction with her/him. Can you find away of connecting/playing that s/he likes better?” or “Will you ask her how she’d like to be treated right now?” or “C’mere — let me give you some loving for a minute, then maybe you two can find a more fun way to play together…” or “Do you need to wrestle?! I’ll get you!!” or “Hey, you know, I bet she’d like it better if you…”

For General Requests and Corrections:
“Please wait until you’ve finished chewing before you talk.”
“Stay at the table until we’re all finished with dinner, please.”
“Can you please grab that sweatshirt you left on the couch and take it…”
“I’d prefer if you walked/sat/whispered/began ______, please.”
“Let’s all get our shoes and coats on (beginning to model it as you make the request)…”
“Let’s keep everyone safe and pick these toys up from the living room floor.” (Again, with younger ones in particular, model or join in as you make the request; with older kids, asking and co-planning are usually enough.)
“Generally, it works better if you/we…”
“I’d like to see you ________ instead.” or “Let’s _________ instead.”
“Is now a good time for you to… (do that thing we discussed earlier)?”
“How about you/we ________?”
“I’d really like it/love it for you to _______.”
“Would you prefer to _______ or _______?”
“We have to _________ now. Would you like to _______ or _______?” (e.g. — “We have to leave now. Would you prefer to walk or fly?” or “We have to go now. Do you want to wear these boots or these shoes?”
“Oh wow, that doesn’t seem safe to me. Can you ________ instead?”
“What’s your favorite part of… (the thing/s we have to do)? Do you want to be in charge of that part?” or “Do you want to do that first?”

Obviously, it’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s close! I got worn out trying to think of more, anyway… Feel free to hit me up with your specific ones in the comment section. I’ll give you my best positive spin on any prohibitive requests you currently use. Though, I warn you, I may also suggest that you reconsider your request(s) — that’s fair game in the sport of “Co-Operation” as well. 😉

As I mentioned, it’s a weird head-trip to begin this sort of rewiring of our normal guidance protocol(s), especially if we’re heavily entrenched in regular “‘No’-slinging”. But it can be done! Take it from someone who was raised on a whopping diet of prohibitions and who is, himself, one the most practiced naysayers around; you can change how you request and prohibit things from your children. And when you do, you also get more cooperation for your efforts! Sounds like a win-win to me.

Again, if you want help finding your positive request voice — give me a holler. I’m here to help. ❤


Be well.

About Nathan M McTague, CPCC, CPDPE

I am a full-time parent of three, Writer, Life Coach, Lecturer, Parenting Mentor, and Shamanic Practitioner. In all of the above, I am seeking to assist my fellow humans in their processes of claiming and unleashing their highest potentials.
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6 Responses to The Power of Saying What You Want

  1. Delanie Isaacs says:

    This is excellent information. I particularly appreciate the specific suggestions for phrasing.

  2. I love this visual of the parents holding their “OK” sign in front of their faces due to the disconnect between what they were told and what they saw being demonstrated. What a powerful way to help parents understand that it is so important that our words match our actions. Hopefully parents are also able to extrapolate your examples further and realize that our kids are finely tuned to the energy we give out. That means that we must be in completely in alignment, not just having our actions and words in sync.


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