As I was driving this morning, I passed a food van parked by the side of the road. On its side was emblazoned its business name, ‘Not Another Pie Van’. I drove on, wondering what they sold (presumably not pies). How would their customers know? Were they relying on people stopping and checking whether they were actually a coffee van? Or a sandwich van? Surely it would make more sense to let folks know what they do sell, rather than mention the one thing that they don’t.
It got me thinking about how often we say ‘no’ to toddlers and how little guidance this actually provides. Toddlers are, after all, very new here. They see the world for its endless possibilities and have so much still to learn. When we tell children NOT to do something, we’ve simply ruled out one option while countless more remain. And many of the options they’re yet to try might be equally unsafe or inappropriate…
Perhaps you’ve seen this with your own young children, or with those with whom you work. You let a child know not to put the glue stick in their mouth…then they turn and start using it to ‘brush’ their friend’s hair. That’s not to say that ‘no’ doesn’t have its place. I’ve heard parents and educators say that they try to avoid using the word ‘no’ with children as they don’t want to come across negatively. ‘No’ isn’t a dirty word; In fact, it’s an important word within our vocabulary and one that we need to teach our children to understand and to use in context. That said, much like my experience with ‘Not Another Pie Van’, simply using ‘no’ with young children isn’t the clearest way to communicate your instructions or the best way to aid their learning.
Instead of ruling out one option using the word ‘no’, it’s much better to explain what you WOULD like children to do and, if necessary, why. Rather than, “Don’t throw your food at Finn”, you might instead say “If you’re finished with the food, you can put it in the bin please.” This approach is also worth remembering when you’re in the supermarket and your toddler, having just watched you stop to touch/pick up several grocery items, has decided to get in on the ‘touch-everything-within-reach’ action… Rather than say, “For goodness’ sake, stop touching everything!” (yep…we’ve all been there), it’s more helpful to engage children by suggesting an alternative approach, such as, “Can you be my helper and when I pass you something, can you be in charge of popping it in the trolley for me?” Unlike the non-pie van, be specific and let your children know what you’re ‘selling’ – that is, socially appropriate behaviour.
This approach can be taken even with infants: “Don’t throw your food from the highchair” vs “If you’re finished eating and want to throw something, how about I lift you up and you can throw your plate in the sink for me”. It makes sense that young children are more likely to do as you’ve asked when you’ve given them a specific suggestion. They’re also more likely to learn what to do next time they’re in the same situation, which is ultimately what you’re aiming for. You are your children’s first teachers after all – make each lesson worth learning.
Dr Kaylene Henderson (MBBS FRANZCP Cert C&A Psych) is a medically trained Child Psychiatrist, parenting specialist and professional development provider for the ECEC sector. She is passionate about sharing practical tips with parents and educators and does so through her popular website www.