Say “Pay Attention,” not “Don’t…” – The Art of Positive Wording to Build Competent Kids

I had many thoughts about how I would parent before I became a parent. I read a litany of books before my son, Beau, was born.  Many I ignored or forgot once he came, so overwhelmed was I with the reality of late nights and how to cure seemingly inconsolable tears.  But a few books stuck.  One very easy and insightful read was The Complete Secrets of Happy Children by Steve and Shaaron Biddulph.  This book offers many simple, common sense reminders of things I think I always knew, but that I needed brought to the front of my awareness.  One huge takeaway was concentrating on how I phrase things to Beau, namely using positive wording to build up his competence and self-assurance, especially when giving commands or instructions.

“If a child is told ‘Don’t fall out of the tree’, then they have to think two things: ‘Don’t’ and ‘fall out of that tree.’  Because we use these words, they automatically create this picture.  What we think, we automatically rehearse” (25).

This idea made perfect sense to me.  Giving negative cautions and warnings instills doubt.  These doubts then become self-fulfilling prophecies followed inevitably by “I told you so.”   What a blow to the ego!  If there was any apprehension to try something new before, who would try again after that embarrassment!

Instead of “Don’t slip” or “Don’t hurt yourself,” tell your child how to do things the proper way.  In the case of my son, Beau, who has a jungle gym in the backyard, we tell him to “Stay focused on where you put your hands” or “Hold on tightly.”  Even “Be careful” seems to be too cautionary for my taste, hinting at danger and inciting doubt.  If he isn’t allowed to do something because it is dangerous, then I don’t let him do it, but if it is him just being a kid, I want to give him the confidence and courage to keep going.

My go-to phrase has become “Pay Attention.”  I use it constantly.  Pay attention climbing the ladder.  Pay attention going down the stairs.  Pay attention jumping off that rock.

I am not warning Beau of danger.  Being naturally risk-averse, he is acutely aware of when he is taking a chance.  Rather, I am asking him to use his senses, to trust his instincts, and to focus on the task at hand.  I am not telling him what NOT to do, but what TO DO.  This simple positive spin on my words shows him that I trust his judgment and that I believe in his ability to succeed, focusing his mind on doing something new rather than on running away in fear of what could be.

The other day, I actually heard Beau tell himself, “Pay attention” when he was climbing our jungle gym ladder!  I could see his awareness heighten as he concentrated on each little move with complete confidence and total control.  I felt like I could sit back, relax, and just enjoy watching him go!  He had the tools and the attention to be safe on his own without my nagging or hand-holding.  It was awesome!!!

Of course, there are times when a sharp “Look Out!” is immediately necessary.  But in our day-to-day language, we have to build our own good habits.  It took awhile to ditch the “Be careful” and “Watch out” so dutifully ingrained from my own upbringing, but now it is second nature.  I now feel like I have helped to establish a habit of mindfulness in my little one that builds him up and gives him courage and competence.  Our words become our kid’s thoughts.  What we say matters!