Tell them what you want them to do instead – better still, show them.

One morning I was sitting in my garden enjoying the sunshine. I could hear the kids over the back fence talking and playing happily. They would start squealing and giggling as well. Before long their mother came out and started telling them off. “Don’t squeal!” “Stop yelling” “Don’t do that!” “How many times have I told you?” Maybe she was worried that the squealing would bother the neighbours because it was still early. Did this stop them from stop squealing? No. In fact they got louder and kept on squealing even when their mother continued to yell over them to be heard.

Later on they started climbing the tree that was up against the fence between both our yards. Soon mum came out and yelled again “Don’t climb the tree” “Don’t get on the fence” “Don’t do that” “Stop”. As soon as mum walked back inside though, they were up on the tree again. This time they were quieter and always watching to see if she would come out. Sometimes they climbed on another part of the fence behind a shed where mum couldn’t see them. They learned to be very quiet while they did this. Poor mum was constantly chipping the boys telling them “don’t do this” and don’t do that”, but as soon as her back was turned, they went on the fence again.

Why saying Don’t doesn’t work

Most people say “Don’t do that” to try to change behaviour. Saying “don’t” has the opposite effect of what you want. Instead of changing the behaviour , it actually reinforces it. There are three reasons why this happens.

 Reason One: Subconscious influence

Blue Circle

If I told you don’t think of a blue circle, what would you be thinking of right now? If I showed you a picture of a blue circle as well, what would you be thinking of? Some of you may be focusing on something else so you don’t think of a blue circle. But whatever you are focusing on won’t be the same as any other reader. And I can guarantee there will be an image of a blue circle somewhere in the back of your mind, particularly when I have said blue circle five times now.

Red Triangle

What if I asked you to focus on a red triangle instead. Would it help if I showed you an image of a red triangle. Which would be the easier object to think about? Even if you showed absolute determination not to think of the blue circle, it takes considerably more effort to think of something else than it does to think of the object you were asked to think of.

 With negative instructions that tell us “Don’t” “No” or “Stop”, our brains overlook the instruction and concentrate on the thing we are asked not to do. What can we learn from this? Tell people what you want them to do instead of what you don’t want them to do.

 Reason Two: They don’t know what to do instead

When we are told “don’t do that”, we don’t actually know what to do. When I said “don’t think of a blue circle” you may have tried really hard to think of something else. But what would you have thought of? If you couldn’t decide what to think of, did you end up thinking of the blue circle anyway? Was it even harder not to think of a blue circle when I showed you a picture of what not to think of?

  When the mum over the back fence told her boys: “don’t squeal” they continued to do so, and this was reinforced when she raised her own voice to yell back at them. I wonder what would have happened if she had said in a softer voice: “speak quietly, just like I am doing.”? Just like it is easier to think of a red triangle when shown a picture of it as well, the mum could have found it easier to change her boys’ behaviour if she told them that she wanted them to speak quietly  and modelled it herself

 What can we learn from this? When telling people what we want them to do, show them as well with a picture, or by modelling the behaviour ourselves.

 Reason Three: Kids will find another way to still do the behaviour.

 When the mum said “Don’t climb the fence” “Don’t climb the tree” the boys still climbed the fence and tree anyway, once she wasn’t looking. In fact, they found another place to climb the fence behind a shed where she couldn’t see them. I could understand mum’s point of view. The tree was a large old orange tree with large nasty thorns. The boys were only little and a fall off the fence could have perhaps ended up with a nasty injury. I could understand if she was concerned about the boys getting hurt.

 Instead of saying “don’t climb on the fence” she could have given them somewhere else to climb, or something else to do. If they want to climb, she could have told them they to climb on a different tree away from the fence, or the climbing equipment if they had it at their home. Sadly, in the times of social isolation, using the climbing equipment at the local park was not an option. If she wanted them to  avoid climbing all together, she could  give them an alternative to do, ride a bike, play in the sandpit, take them for a walk.

 We also need to consider if climbing a tree really is a concern. Kids are active, they need to move, they love to explore. I’m not sure why the mum didn’t want them on the tree or the fence, maybe she was worried about them falling, maybe she was worried about them bothering me, which they weren’t. Saying “don’t climb the fence” or “don’t climb the tree” didn’t stop them from climbing. All that changed was when they climbed – at a time she couldn’t see them.

 What can we learn from this?

If you don’t tell kids what to do instead, they will find another way to still do it, especially if they are motivated to do it. You have a better chance of changing the behaviour if you give them something to do that still matches their motivation. The boys wanted to move and explore, so riding bikes, going for nature walks, climbing another tree would have still satisfied their need to move.

Most behaviours happen for a reason, usually to satisfy a need. By giving kids something different to do that still satisfies the same need, then you have a better chance of changing their behaviour than trying to eliminate it by simply saying don’t.