To Do or Not To Do

I have a child in mind who is running through the house, tracking mud along the journey, jumping on the couch, scrambling up on a countertop, dropping clothes in the hallway, making tsunamis in the tub.

And into his little ears comes a reprimand (or two or three) passed down through The Ages: “Cut that out, now you behave yourself.”  “Stop it.”  “Don’t do that!”

These phrases are ingrained in the sub-conscious minds of most adults. They fly out of our mouths like pre-recorded messages.  Actually, we do have “recordings” in our minds, for better or worse, from parental words spoken to us.  These are often the first words we spout forth, even without thinking – they are part of us.

But STOP & DON’T are the least effective words to change children’s behavior. My job is to look through a child’s eyes, listen through a child’s ears.  A child may hear:

“Anthony, stop that right now or there’ll be no XBox when we get home.”

I usually hear the following translation:

“Anthony, cease this action right now, even though you are physically activated and completely engrossed in it. Calm yourself down, generate a list of other things you could do, select an alternative acceptable behavior, and re-route your mental and physical energy into that. Otherwise, you will lose a privilege several hours from now, long after this moment has passed.”

In psycho-babble, we are asking him to deploy his emotional and physical self-regulation skills and use executive functions.  OK, let’s switch to plain old English!  Only telling him STOP/DON’T asks him to take control of his body and emotions, suppress a strong impulse, and make a measured decision about what to do instead.   All of which require his frontal lobes … which are still growing.

Grown-ups can act as a child’s frontal lobes. Tell him what TO DO instead of what NOT to do.*   It’s an extra thinking step —  in an already busy day — but it yields the best results in the now and promotes learning for next time.  It’s teaching.  And it’s loving. It keeps YOU calm. Best of all, it’s effective.

Your effort to convert STOP/ DON’T responses into DOs will pay off.  The trick: imagine what your child would be doing if she were not doing this behavior.

    • If his shoes were not on the couch, his sneaker feet would be on the floor.
    • If she were not running through the house, she’d be using her quiet walking feet.
    • If he weren’t squeezing the family cat, he’d be using soft hands.
    • If she weren’t hitting brother in the car, her hands would be on her own side touching her own things.
    • If he weren’t scribbling, he’d be drawing slowly and carefully.

Sometimes the STOP/DON’T moment is urgent – like hurting or breaking. The first reasonable DO conversion might be “please come here by me.” There you can explain what needs to stop and what else your child can do.

“DO commands” do the initial work for you child’s frontal lobe – they tell her what to do instead. In my experience, children are more likely to comply with constructively phrased, friendly but firm DO commands.   Begin with “You may” to add an element of courtesy and authority, a respectful and effective combination.  Follow with praise for any amount of effort, however small, and generously describe any response going in the right direction.  DO commands are teaching moments.

    • “You may make small waves under the water; thank you for trying little waves.  Ooh, that’s a little one!”
    • Walk slowly and carefully with that cup of juice, please.  Excellent trying! You are really watching that cup.”
    • Hug me with gentle arms, please – oh, that feels so good, thank you for being gentle! “
    • “You may move over here [point] away from sissy to make your building.  Good job starting to move your stuff.”

DO commands readily lead into detailed praise.  When you notice spontaneous displays of DO behaviors you’ve been teaching, give a specific praise! Add lots of description. I call this “Positive Noticing,” detecting and commenting upon cooperative DOs that occur even without your prompting. Quite simply, “catch ’em being good.”

Try some DO commands.  They have changed the lives of many families in my care!  Make a list on your fridge converting your most frequent STOP/DON’T commands to DOs.  The extra thought will pay off as your child advances in self-control and emotional regulation.

* These ideas are drawn from the Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) treatment model developed by Sheila Eyberg Ph.D., University of Florida, with whom Dr. Onufrak trained in her doctoral studies.

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7 Comments on “To Do or Not To Do”

  1. Awesome, Dr. Beth! So very true! Your approach just resonates with me! While consulting for early childhood programming and encouraging teachers to use this approach, you can imagine my joy when I hear a teacher say to a child who is standing on the couch, “Izzy, you may sit on the couch. I see you are moving so gently to sit by your friend!”

  2. drdinareimer says:

    I like your approach, Dr. Beth, especially with the little ones.

  3. nutritionistjan says:

    My job is to look through a child’s eyes, listen through a child’s ears.” Beth, this is brilliant! In this *fast paced world it’s easiest to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind rather than take the time to communicate in a thoughtful, respectful manner. I love that you are writing and your followers on twitter have gazillioned since we last spoke but then… your muse has found it’s voice.

    * sort of like anti-nutrients in today’s chemicalized fast foods – easier to grab than taking the time assemble thoughtful nutrient replete meals/snacks that will nourish and satisfy our bodies and brains – helping us to slow down and focus in this fast paced world.

  4. hakea says:

    Wow! You trained with Dr Eyberg. That must have been a great experience.

    I did PCIT training with Dr Chery McNeil. She is an inspiration.

    I wrote about my experience of delivering PCIT in a community setting here http://criticalcompanions.wordpress.com/2012/07/18/pcit-at-large/ if you are interested.

    • Hakea, thanks for the comment. Dr. McNeil was 2 years ahead in our doctoral program. She helped me master PCIT when we studied under Dr. Eyberg. Enjoyed your post about adapting this standardized intervention for community needs. With its enormous power and learnability, Phase I of PCIT remains my favorite clinical intervention to teach and model.


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