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Children / Mama Drama / Motherhood

Mama Drama: To Do or Not To Do

Dear Mama Drama:

I am so frustrated with my children because they are so oppositional. It seems like whatever I tell them they do the opposite. If I say don’t run, they run. If I say don’t hit you brother, they hit. If I say don’t forget your coat, they forget the coat.

They also don’t want to get ready for bed, clean up after meals, or pick up their toys. It is so exasperating! We seem to be in never ending conflict and need some help.

~Conflicted Mama

(photo credit)

Dear Conflicted:

Research shows that when we tell children “don’t run,” they process the run and not the don’t. Additionally, when we tell our children what not to do, we assume they know what to do instead. I’m sure your children know how to walk, but they may not be processing that walking is what you want them to do instead of running. There are a lot of other choices such as skipping, hopping, twirling, tip toeing, jumping, and sliding to name a few – I don’t mean to be flippant, just demonstrating the plethora of options.

Rather than telling your children what not to do, tweak your instructions to tell them what “to do.” Taking your examples from above, change them to “walk please,” “use gentle hands,” and “remember your coat.” They seem like simple changes that wouldn’t make that much difference, but they really do. With these directions your children know exactly what you expect of them.

Your children also need to know what you mean by walking and using gentle hands. Assume they do not have the same perception of your words unless you have taught them specifically and repeatedly. Children need to practice a skill hundreds of times before they consistently perform it independently. I always say if you are thinking to yourself, “I’ve told her that a thousand times!” get excited because she’s almost got it down!

If your children are really digging in their heels you can also play the opposite game. “Don’t you dare go up there and brush your teeth!” “Do not put those dishes in the dishwasher.” “You had better leave those toys in the middle of the floor so we can all step on them.” My sons think it is absolutely hilarious when I do this and it helps me keep a sense of humor when I’m becoming frustrated. There are only two rules for the opposite game. One is that the game ends if they don’t do the opposite of what they are asked. The other is “I love you” never means the opposite and we don’t use its opposite either.

Taking the extra second to think about what we want our children to do allows us to be clear about our expectations and provides a more positive experience for them.

Motherhood is an amazing journey that can have its share of Mama Drama. The Mama Drama column runs on Fridays with everyday mothering questions from readers and answers providing strategies to tackle these daily challenges. Send your questions and challenges to [email protected], and your Mama Drama could be in next week’s column! Lisa is also available for private consultations. All emails and identifying information will remain confidential.

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  1. My husband tells this hilarious story about when he was 5 and first learning to tell jokes. He learned one and told it over and over. (Doesn’t every kid?) His father’s response was “That was funny the first time.” But that didn’t stop the 5 yr old from retelling it. Why? Because he didn’t understand the unsaid part of that — that if it was funny the first time, it might not be funny anymore on the 51st time.

    After hearing this anecdote was when I started trying phrase my requests more positively and specifically. This is really good advice.

  2. Great suggestion that will require a complete paradigm shift in my phraseology. But definitely worth it to make my kids actually listen!

  3. That is a great story, Kagey. Our little quips don’t make a difference if the kids don’t understand them.

    Be gentle with yourself as you work to change your language, Amber. When you notice you’ve said “don’t…,” just rephrase it with what you want them to do. It takes practice, but is totally worth it!

    Putting phrases on sticky notes around the house that you need to use frequently is a great back up for when you can’t think of what to say.

  4. Another way to approach this is with acceptable choices.

    For example:
    ~ Would you like to pick up your toys now or in five minutes?
    *Silly, they’ll obviously pick five minutes but they have some control. Still not picking up the toys in five minutes? Then another choice.
    ~ Would you like to pick them up now or would you like me to do it? Okay, brace yourselves for this one. They’ll probably pick you. You pick them up but then put them way up on a high shelf. The next day when they ask you if you can get them down you state, ” I’m sorry, but I picked up your toys yesterday and you may not have them until tomorrow.” Yes, there will be tears and crying but the next day take them down again and repeat. They’ll hesitate the next time you ask if them if they want to pick up their toys or if they want you to do it.

    Also…Re: their coat. Give them two acceptable choices.
    ~ Would you like to put your coat on outside in the freezing rain or would you like to carry your jacket?
    If they carry it, at least they have it. If they start to complain then you ask “Is there anything you can do to get warm?” It gives them the freedom to choose and teaches them to think through their choices.

    Remember above all else, practice makes perfect!

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