Minding Your Negatives

We’re going to be talking about pink elephants, colourful zebras, and wet towels. You’ll want to get your imagination ready as we discover the power of negative words.

Elephants and Zebras

If I told you to not think about a pink elephant, I bet you that you would have a hard time not thinking about a pink elephant. A pink elephant would immediately pop into your mind. However, if I told you to go ahead and think about an orange and purple striped zebra, your mind would immediately provide you with an image of a very colourful zebra.

Don’t Forget the Towels

Similarly, if I told my child not to leave the towel on the floor, I probably won’t have much luck in getting them to hang it up where it belongs.

The mind is a funny thing that way. It focusses on the objects in the sentence. So it hears “floor” and “towel” and associates those two things together. The “do” or “don’t” is irrelevant to your mind.

To get your children to understand the relationship between the towel and the rack try this. Rather than, “Don’t leave the towel on the floor”, say, “Please hang up the towel on the towel rack.”

That slight change of focus from the don’t to the do is often so simple that we miss it. Unfortunately our brain doesn’t.

Rather than using negative terminology, you simply need to rephrase your words so that you put the focus on the outcome you want. Be specific about what you want your child to do or the behaviour you would like to see.

Temper Tantrums and other Behaviours

Instead of, “I don’t want to see you throwing a temper tantrum if you don’t get what you want for your birthday,” try something like, “It would be so nice to see you say thank you kindly when you open presents at your birthday party.”

Do you see the difference? One focusses on the negative behaviour and the other, the positive behaviour.

Imagine that child opening their presents and thinking, “I’m not supposed to have a temper tantrum, I’m not supposed to have a temper tantrum…but I didn’t want this. What do I do now?”

The alternate situation where you’ve encouraged them to show more acceptable behaviour might go like this in your child’s head: “I should kindly say thank you. I should kindly say thank you. I didn’t want this…oh, Mom told me to kindly say thank you.”

Kids are Still Kids

It’s not of course not foolproof. Kids brains are still developing and at times emotions can take over. But if you continue to provide them with kind, encouraging, positive words that teach them acceptable behaviour, you will be helping their brains wire up with options of behaviours they can choose from rather than refraining of acting on behaviours they have been told not to.

Negative suggestions are very confusing to a child. Heck, personally I hate double negatives myself. The key is to phrase it in the positive and drop as much of the negative words as you can.

That which you speak most of, you get most. Speak of the wanted behaviours often and cull the attention you give negative behaviours. You’ll be amazed how much more positive behaviour starts to happen around you.

Recipe for Tool #6:


  • A keen ear to listen to your own sentences.
  • The ability to change your focus from the negative to the positive.

Step 1 – Listen

What are you constantly telling your child?

Is your default, “Don’t slam the door. No more junk food. Stop fighting.”?

Step 2 – Reframe with the goal in mind

Don’t slam the door becomes, “Close the door quietly, please.” No more junk food become, “There’s some fruit and veggies in the fridge.” Stop fighting becomes, “Remember last night when we played Scrabble and you two were getting along so nicely? That was so much fun!”

Keep working on giving up your negative words by focusing on the behaviour and actions you want your child to have. Make a game of it and see how creative you can get as you work on giving your child suggestions for positive behaviours and actions. I think you’ll be surprised at how much fun this tool can be!


HB is a roller coaster father, one minute he is ecstatic about his children, the next he wonders if life will ever get any better. A long standing member of the 'I yell at my kids' club, he writes with passion and an analytical mind. Dissecting and separating the nuanced strategies that make a good parent great. He experiments with parenting techniques on his 3 year old so you don't have to.

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