Positive language – particularly the word “yes” – has a lot of power. Using it leaves us feeling good about ourselves and others, turns battles into collaboration, models respect, validates feelings, and builds empathy. Why is this? Well, as Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman explain in their book, Words Can Change Your Brain, it’s all about the brain. Positive words stimulate and strengthen frontal lobe activity in ways that directly move us into action. We feel good physically, emotionally, and mentally when we hear and use positive language.
Negatives, on the other hand, leave us feeling stressed and upset. The brain has a hard time processing negatives and unconsciously decides to suppress negative information to minimize anxiety or mental discomfort. While we do respond to negatives, “yes” and other positive words work more effectively because our brain lets us hear them.
Quite simply, “yes” creates cooperation while “no” creates conflict.
Why “Yes” Works as a Parenting Tool:
- It’s easier to understand. Positive language is direct. Directions that include words like “no” and “don’t” requires kids to first figure out what they aren’t supposed to do and then what they are supposed to do. This is confusing! Presenting what we want others to do in a positive, straightforward way keeps things simple and easy – no thought required!
- Empowers and reinforces positive behavior. Kids focus on positive words, so what needs to be done – instead of not done – keeps their focus making them more likely to do it. And when adults praise and encourage kids for behaving as asked, it empowers them, making it likely the behavior will recur.
- Encourages listening instead of tuning out. When kids hear “no” or “don’t” too often they’re more likely to start tuning you out or just doing what they want before you can say no (asking forgiveness instead of permission).
- Makes “no” more meaningful. After a while, “no” to a cookie before dinner and “no” to riding your bike down the middle of the street in traffic are seen as pretty much the same. They aren’t equally important but kids learn to react to or ignore them equally. Saving “no” for the most important times and situations means that when you say it, your kids will know you mean it and be more likely to comply.
- Leaves parents feeling good. When we provide positive direction, it not only gets results but leaves others (like our kids) thinking good thoughts about us (well…most of the time). When others feel good about us, it creates comfortable, positive happy feelings all around. When we feel like good parents, we’re feeling competent and empowered instead of helpless and overwhelmed. How do you want to feel?
But My Kids Need Limits!
Parents usually have positive intentions when they use words like “no,” “don’t,” and the like. It’s something we learned from our own parents as a way to set limits, reinforce rules, and stay safe. Be honest, did you like hearing “no” or “don’t” as a kid? How about now? I bet not. Kids get tired of hearing negatives just as much as adults do and since kids communicate more through behavior than words, they tell us so through tantrums, sassiness, rebellion, or flat-out refusal to cooperate. This usually results in parental pushback such as more rules, increased negative feedback, or even criticism. Although this can result in immediate improvement, it is generally temporary. The misbehavior is likely to continue or even increase. Hello power struggle!
The good news is that “yes” is really powerful at setting limits.
Setting Limits with “Yes”
You can set limits using “yes” or even avoid having to set limits by telling kids what you want them to do in a clear, direct way. For example:
“Can I have a cupcake (or a snack)?”
No: “No, It’s too close to dinner.”
Yes: “Yes, you may have a cupcake after you’ve finished dinner!”
“Can I play on the iPad?”
No: “No, you haven’t done your chores.”
Yes: “Sure, after you’ve put the dishes in the dishwasher.”
“Can Susan come over?”
No: “No, you have to do your homework first.”
Yes: “Yes, when you’ve finished your homework, give her a call.”
Kids roughhousing with each other
No: “Stop bouncing on the couch and hitting each other right now!”
Yes: “Wow – you guys sure have energy! Let’s find something active for you to do outside!
Positive Direction vs. Negative Direction
Hand me the ball.
Stop! Put it down! Don’t throw that!
Put your toys in your room.
Don’t dump your toys on the floor!
Mary, please chew with your mouth closed.
Mary, you’re a big girl now and should know better than to chew with your mouth open!
Finding ways to say yes is important and it does work. However, keep in mind that using “yes” and positive direction is not foolproof. Telling your kids that they have to do their homework, when they don’t want to do their homework is likely to cause resistance; however, they are more likely to respond with less argument once they understand they know there’s a positive consequence (playing on the iPad, calling a friend, etc.) waiting for them. Eventually, they’ll respond much more quickly and positively.
Finally, saying ‘yes’ doesn’t mean giving in to your child’s every whim like eating candy for breakfast or running out in the street, nor does it mean allowing hurtful or disrespectful behavior. What it does mean is using your creativity, flexibility, and thought to find ways to say “yes” instead of “no” as you set limits, reinforce rules, keep kids safe, and teach them all the things that will help them solve problems, get along with others, and be otherwise successful and happy.