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Positive vs Negative Language: It Makes a Difference!

Research has shown that ‘don’t,’ ‘stop,’ and other forms of negative language actually do more harm than good. The reason? Discipline worded negatively is much harder to understand.

‘Stop’ on its own tells a child nothing. They are left to deduce what they shouldn’t be doing and what they should be doing. For preschoolers and toddlers, we are actually asking too much. Now, some may argue we should simply add what they should stop doing to the word stop. However, by being specific, we are only resolving half of the issue. We still haven’t told our children what they should be doing. As a result, we are requiring our children to double-process. This means a young child has to establish what isn’t wanted of them and what to do instead. Moreover, negative language becomes discouraging to children. When they constantly hear what they are doing wrong, it can feel futile to try to do right.

On the other hand, positive language tells them what to do instead and eliminates confusion. It reinforces good behavior, is clear, and requires that the parents put more thought into their discipline. In truth, when we default to the same phrases, our children are more likely to ignore us.

Alternatives to Negative Language

  • Don’t run – Only walking, please.
  • Stop touching your sister – Hands to yourself, please.
  • Don’t throw toys – Please keep your toys on the ground.
  • Leave him alone – Come over here and play.
  • Don’t take out all your toys – Let’s clean up what you were playing with before taking anything else out.
  • Don’t hit – Only gentle touches, please.
  • Stop yelling – Quiet voice, please.
  • Calm down – Take a deep breath. Find 14 more alternatives to saying calm down here.
  • You’re doing bad listening – Look at my eyes. I need good listening.
  • Stop picking your nose – Go get a Kleenex, please.

Finally, finding a way to say ‘yes,’ goes a long way. For instance, instead of answering, “No you can’t have a cupcake now,” saying, “After dinner, you can have a treat,” is much easier to digest. The message is different, the outcome the same.

When it comes to how we discipline our children, our words matter. Negative language impacts our children negatively. And, we want to accomplish our discipline as effectively as possible. Positive language and positive discipline are the most effectual course of action.


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