In the fifteen years I have been a parent I have learned some things the hard way about how not to communicate to improve my child’s behavior. In general terms, pleading, being wishy-washy or ambiguous, or yelling doesn’t work. Over these years I have found some useful phrases or ways of saying things which actually have worked for me in increasing positive behaviors in my child. I will share some of these sayings with you and I hope to generate some discussion about which useful phrases have worked for you.
1. "I can’t let you (describe behavior)."
This is a useful phrase because it automatically puts you in a position of authority, it is straightforward and it is emotionally neutral. I use this phrase when there is no room for negotiation and when I do not wish to enter a power struggle. There is no pleading or asking your child to cease a certain behavior. There is simply a direct statement that you cannot let your child engage in certain behaviors.
How it works: Let’s say your child is playing ball in the house. You want to stop this behavior. Instead of long winded explanations or warnings you simply say, "I can’t let you play ball in the house." You say it matter of factly and without emotion. Then you follow up with physical action of directing your child to a more appropriate setting for playing ball such as the backyard.
2. "I will know you are ready when"¦"
If you have a child like mine who doesn’t do very well with transitions, this can be an effective phrase to let your child understand the prerequisite actions or behaviors necessary to proceed to the next activity. It also eliminates power struggles because the impetus is on your child to show that they are ready to move forward.
How it works: Let’s say you want to take your child to the store but he or she always dawdles despite the fact that it is a reinforcing experience. Instead of admonishing the child to hurry up you say, "I will know you are ready to go to the store when you clean up your toys and put your shoes and coat on." It can also work for behaviors as in "I will know you are ready to work when you are sitting quietly with your hands folded." This phrase gives the child a feeling of control that they know exactly what to do during times of transition.
3. "I like the way you (describe positive behavior)."
We know that positive verbal reinforcement works to increase appropriate behaviors. But if it is always the watered down kind such as a Pavlovian, "Good job," the message loses much of its meaning. How is a child supposed to know what was good about their behavior if you don’t spell it out for them?
How it works: Instead of muttering, "good work" when your child completes their homework assignment you will want to be far more descriptive. Here is an example: "I really liked the way you did your homework tonight without me having to remind you. I also liked it that you checked over your math problems to make sure that they were all correct. Keep up the good work." This way your child understands exactly what you hope they keep doing.
4. "I want you to (describe behavior)." We all like to be polite. But sometimes in communicating with our children, politeness leaves room for your child to wiggle out of doing what you have asked them to do. When we make a request beginning with the words, "Could you"¦" your child may think or even answer, "Well I could but I won’t." Simple and direct works so much better.
How it works: Instead of saying, "Could you take out the trash?" rephrase this to "I want you to take out the trash before you leave for school." This way your child knows exactly what is expected and when.
5. "First we will (describe chore) and then we will (describe reinforcing activity or event)."
I have found that if you want your child to complete a chore or engage in an activity that they are not really excited about, it is useful to pair it with an activity your child does prefer. This way you can have a natural reinforcer built right into their schedule to increase the likelihood that they will complete their work and chores.
How it works: If you want your child to take a bath you can say something like, "First you will take a bath and then we will make popcorn." So this way there is an incentive for taking the bath and you have made it clear about the order of things.
Now we would love to hear about your ideas. Do you have any useful phrases or ways of saying things which are effective in increasing your child’s good behaviors? We want to hear them The more tools we have as parents the better we can help our kids. Please know that you are a vital part of this community and we would like to hear more from you.