“Don’t drop that!”
The words rushed from your panicked mouth the instant you noticed your child carrying a fragile glass with that toddler-on-a-mission haste we all know. You watch your child lock eyes with you and immediately drop the glass. Shards shatter across the crumb covered floor you know you’ve already swept this morning. Why did he need to be carrying a fragile object? I don’t have an answer for you. Why did he drop it, just as you told him specifically not to? Actually, I can give you the answer to that.
I’m sure as a parent in 2020 you’ve heard this a hundred times, but I don’t mean this to sound condescending- humans pre-frontal lobes are not fully developed until age 25. Young children especially cannot be expected to make logical decisions in the heat of a moment. They really are going to try to listen to what you tell them most of the time. The problem is, we need to change the way we talk to them when the situation is urgent. Their processing abilities are not as fast as ours, so it is our job as parents to tell them exactly what to do if it isn’t safe for them to experiment and learn for themselves. Think about what you’ve said- “Don’t drop that!” What did he hear? “…Drop that!” and so he does. He might think about how not to drop something afterwards. When told not to preform an action, young children have to think about what that action is, and then figure out how not to do it. Or, we can simply tell them what to do.
The key to helping young children follow directions it to tell them what to do- not to tell them what *not* to do.
If I want to prevent the glass from breaking, what I actually need to say is “Hold onto that!”. I can ask them to slow down. I can calmly approach them with a plastic cup and offer a trade. I can explain what happens when a glass is dropped once it’s out of their sweet, destructive little hands.
Instead of “Don’t run!”, we can say “Walk please!”
“Don’t hit!” My friends, what they hear first, what registers in their brain before they process the entire sentence, is “Hit!”
What can we say to help our children refrain from hurting their friends when they’re mad? We can say “Stop.” We can then say, “Take a deep breath.”, “Walk away.”, “Come to me.”, “Hands to yourself.”, or “Use your words.”. With persistent problems, you can talk with your child and figure out a plan of action, agree on a replacement behavior. Perhaps a behavior that is still not great, but better. When I have talked with my 3 year old about hitting, he has explained to me that he feels he needs to hit because he is so angry. Helping our children learn to control their impulses is a long process. He and I decided that to stop himself from hitting, it might be a helpful alternative for him to stomp his feet. Since this keeps him from hurting others, and lets him physically express his anger like his body is telling him to, we have adopted this baby step to help him learn to control his impulses. If I see my child becoming angry and raise his arm to hit, I might say “Stop. Stomp your feet.” If I were to say “Don’t hit! Stomp your feet!” I know that he might not be able to process that quick enough, and he might hit.
Our goals as parents are to set our kids up for success. At this young age, telling them what to do instead of what not to do is a fast track to our children understanding what is being asked of them.