From the time our children are infants, we tell them “Don’t.” Don’t touch. Don’t hit. Don’t put that in your mouth. Health and safety concerns are often the root of our use of this four letter word. We tell our children what not to do and then we wonder why they continue to touch and to hit and to put it in their mouths. You cannot stop a behavior without replacing it. We need to stop using that four letter word and tell them what to do. We need to make expectations the focus of teaching behavior rather than what we don’t want to see or hear.
When your child hits, pushes or kicks, he is trying to express his frustration. When your child reaches for intriguing items, she is expressing her curiosity. The frontal lobe of the brain isn’t developed yet so the children cannot control their impulses. When they have the impulse to act physically or reach for dangerous items and we say, “Don’t,” they will. They have nothing else to do with that energy. A child who reaches for an outlet should be told to put his hand down. “Don’t touch” will most often be too hard to process and an impulse that has to be released. When a child hits or kicks or pushes, we need to say, “Next time, you need to….” and tell her what we want her to do when the situation recurs. We should tell children to walk rather than don’t run, put feet on the floor rather than don’t climb and take turns rather than don’t grab that toy.
The worse use of the four letter word “Don’t,” however, is about emotions. Don’t cry. Don’t be scared. Don’t have normal human emotions because they are unacceptable. That’s the message that is sent when we invalid their real and normal feelings by saying, “Don’t.” Sadness and fear are part of the human experience. It is fine to feel fear. Fear can keep us from harm. It is okay to cry. We are all sad sometimes. When I was a girl, parents would say to a crying child, “I will give you something to cry about…” That was ludicrous. If we were crying, we had a reason to cry. It was a legitimate child’s reason to cry. Many parents of my generation vowed never to say that to our children but we are equally soul crushing when we say, “Don’t cry” and “Don’t be scared.” It is so important that children of all ages are given the freedom to feel. It is a basic human right. Real men and women cry. Why do we ask that our children don’t?
Don’t is such an integral part of our everyday speech that we often fail to realize that we are saying it until it is too late. Put “don’t” in the same category as other words that you prefer not to use in front of your children. Replace it with “try” and “do” when we want to teach behavior. Replace it with “It’s okay to be scared. Let me help you” and “I see you are sad. Can I hug you?”
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