Speaking Positively to Children

Affirmative responses can turn kids' stumbles into great learning experiences.

Posted Oct 18, 2019

It’s 8:15, the school bus is coming, and your third-grader is searching for a homework paper. You shout, “Get moving! If you don’t hurry, the bus will go without you! You should have thought of this last night!” Your child bursts into tears, your anger is compounded by guilt, and the bus comes and leaves; thus, the day begins on a negative note.

When a child stumbles, as children do, a parent’s biggest challenge is how to respond appropriately. Is it possible to turn a negative scene into a positive learning experience? How can we help our children feel good about themselves? Become responsible for their actions? Learn to avert disaster?

wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock
Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

One way, experience proves, is to speak positively.

Speaking positively means being affirmative. A child is usually willing to respond positively to affirmative language, such as:

  • “Remember” (I have faith in you), rather than, “Don’t forget!” (You will never remember unless I issue this negative imperative.)
  • “You are good at clearing the table” (You are increasingly able; I need you; we are a team), instead of, “You can’t leave until you clear” (Do what I tell you; you are my servant).
  • “Good start! The books back on your shelf look nice.” (I appreciate your clean-up effort), versus, “When are you going to finish cleaning up this pigsty?” (Your effort is meaningless; you are a slowpoke; you don’t please me.)
  • “Those green pants are your favorites, I know, but your new blue ones may make you look more grown-up tonight” (I respect your autonomy in choosing your own clothes, but perhaps I can guide you), instead of, “What got into you? People don’t wear worn-out play clothes to a concert!” (You are not very bright, and you are a slob, to boot.)
  • “I’m interested to hear you say that” (I’m with you), in lieu of, “I don’t know what you are babbling about” (You are not worth listening to).
  • “Thank you for letting the dog out” (I like your new conscientiousness), instead of, “I thought you would never learn to open the back door” (I have low expectations for you).
  • “I love you too much to let you ride your bike after dark” (I worry about your safety), instead of, “You are not going out, because I say so” (Don’t try a power play with me).

Positive speaking works, with conscious effort and lots of practice. If you are concerned about how you communicate with your children, here are four pointers to help you readjust your manner of speaking:

1. Collect your thoughts before responding, especially when you are angry, upset, or unpleasantly surprised.

The more dramatic the child’s predicament, the more impressive a parent’s response will be. What do you want your child to remember about a problematic situation—your hasty, negative reaction or your thoughtful understanding? When a child is out of control, he needs the calm reassurance of someone who is not equally unrestrained. He needs a grown-up.

2. Acknowledge your child’s emotions.

Positive speaking entails positive listening. When you listen and respond positively, you give your child the consideration you want for yourself. Remember that although a child’s moods may not be your own, they are nonetheless valid. 

3. Reinforce what is good about the child’s feelings and actions, even when something goes wrong.

Help him assess his experience by talking over what part of it he did right. Suggest that he view the part he did wrong as a “mistake for learning.” This flawed experience will help him do better the next time.  

4. Use “I” messages.

“I know” or “I see” are empathetic messages that show the child you are involved. “I” messages avoid the blame and superiority inherent in many “you” statements. Instead of, “You are always infuriating,” try, “I feel angry when you…” to tell the child, constructively, how her actions affect you.

Thus, when your child is moving slowly and the bus is coming quickly, say, “I know you wish you could find your homework. You worked hard on it! Let’s make a date to talk over what you can do in the future to help yourself remember. Now it’s time to leave for the bus.” Later, sit and brainstorm together. Your interest will encourage your child to take responsibility for what truly matters.

Let’s look at other examples of children’s challenging behavior and how you may respond:

Your little boy knocks over an antique vase filled with water. Wait! What is more important—the treasure that holds flowers or the treasure that is your child? Rather than compound any damage by attacking your child for an unintentional mistake, try to remember that a child’s clumsiness is not purposeful but happens because the child is tired or misgauges his body in space or is concentrating on something else.

Startled by his own lack of coordination, he’ll appreciate hearing, “Whoops! We need to clean this up. Please get a towel and then we’ll put the vase where it won’t be in your way.” Just think how grateful you would be, if after washing the new red t-shirt with the white clothes, you heard someone say, “I guess you’ve had a hard day,” instead of, “You’re so careless!”

Your 10-year-old is depressed because her soccer team lost the tournament. Don’t dismiss her dejection with a comment like, “It’s nothing to get upset about; it’s just a game.” Instead, acknowledge her feelings: “I know you are really sad because the game didn’t go the way you hoped [or, expected]. I’d like to hear about it.”

Letting your child be sad, angry, or disappointed rather than squelching those non-happy emotions helps her learn how to handle her feelings. Reinforce the positive: “I think it’s wonderful that you care as much as you do. That makes you a valuable member of your team.”

Your teenager is furious because his brother won’t let him have a turn on the Xbox. He vents his anger on the closet door, smashing several louvers with his fist. After taking a deep breath, you say, “I can tell you’re really angry. Being angry is okay, but being destructive is not.”

Sometimes, in a situation like this, less is more. You may be surprised how rapidly the tension dissipates when you stop talking and open your arms. Under stress, every one of us needs human contact, with someone who is calm and simply there. Being there is the most positive statement one can make.

Despite your best efforts, of course, you’ll occasionally revert to sounding like the wicked stepparent. When you feel you have overreacted to a situation, your child undoubtedly feels the same way.

Try, “I blew it when I yelled at you,” or, “I was cranky and said something I’m sorry about.” You won’t relinquish your parental authority when you apologize; on the contrary, you will reveal that the process of making mistakes and learning from them is itself a positive experience.

Adapted from an article published in Parent & Child magazine. 

Learn more about Carol's work at www.CarolStockKranowitz.com