Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Why Stating If/Thens in the Positive is Essential to Your Relationship

I've posted before about the importance of enforceable statements, stating the conditions under which you will do, provide or allow a child to do something. By definition enforceable statements are stated in the positive. An example would be, "You're welcome to head outside as soon as your room is clean." We've focused in the past on how these statements increase adult credibility because they are actually enforceable (as contrasted with "Don't you talk to me in that tone of voice", which is much less enforceable). This time let's take a look at how framing your if/then or when/then statements in the positive affects your relationship with your child.

The Difference Between the Two
When things aren't going smoothly, or when we are rushed, we are much more likely frame our requests and commands in the negative So the enforceable statement about the room above goes downhill to become "You're not going outside, unless you get that room cleaned."

The puzzling thing about it is that in the two examples, stated in the negative and then in the positive, the limit being set is exactly the same one. You could say that the statements are logically equivalent. Though they are setting the exact same limit, framing the statement in the negative undermines your relationship with your child in a huge number of way. Let's look at a few.

When an if/then statement is put in the negative, it sounds like a threat. Think about how you feel when someone threatens you. The hair stand up on the back of your neck, and you want to defy the person issuing it. You might even resolve to get back at them. Needless to say when your child hears a threat, it becomes much harder for your child to comply. And when used frequently she will be much more likely to need to struggle with you over control in other areas, even unimportant ones.

Command Avalanche
Whether you make your if/then statements in the negative or positive has a compounded effect over time. I think it is easy for us to forget just how much kids have to put up with adults setting limits for them. And don't get me wrong, I'm all for adults setting reasonable limits for kids. Kids need them. But lets pause and consider (or even remember) what that's like. They have to listen to parents, teacher and other adults throughout their day telling them when they can eat, that they have to be quiet, that they can't play yet, that it's time to clean up now, and on and on.

The point is that when you add up all these commands, the positive manner of phrasing them leaves your child focused on the options at hand. They sound more like the world is filled with opportunities, and they have choices to make. It helps them to behave more responsibly and feel more capable: "Feel free to dig into those cookies, as soon as your lunch is finished." On the other hand, when stated in the negative, the child ends up with what must feel like an avalanche of threats, constraints and negativity. "If you don't get that desk clean, you're not going to recess", "If you don't finish your dinner, no chocolate milk for you."

The Embedded Message We Want to Avoid
This last point is an important one. Kids respect adults who can warmly set reasonable limits with them. They feel safe and protected knowing what their limits are. When they hear limits set in the negative, the underlying message they seem to get, even when we don't intend it that way, is "I don't like you all that much, you're not very capable, and I certainly don't want you enjoying anything in life." The piece about wanting them to enjoy themselves, within the limits of responsible behavior is a biggie. Teens are very apt to see adults as wet blankets as it is. It is part of the process of individuation, to a point. Talking to our kids by phrasing things in the negative from early on though makes the waters more troubled, and sets you sailing in them sooner than you need to.

The negative command tick is a challenging habit to break. See my article at GTDtimes about elephant training to understand why that is, AND what you can do to make your success much more likely. Also see this previous post on seven tips for mastering new interpersonal skills.
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