How many times a day do we tell our kids (or students) what they’re not allowed to do?

So many times that we can see the resentment on their faces every time we open our mouths.

It doesn’t matter how you say it. You can express it so calmly that Mother Theresa herself would applaud you, but if they hear, “Don’t do that,” one more time, they’re going to lose their minds.

It starts with a huff or an eye roll, but if it continues without a break, the eye rolls will turn into glares and the huffs will turn into stomping their feet. Eventually, they’ll stop listening to you altogether.

Some of it has to do with defiance, but the majority of it has to do with feeling like all they ever hear is the negative. All they hear is restriction, reproach, and suppression.

Voice tone matters (don’t think I’m saying it doesn’t), but it’s only a piece of the puzzle.

It’s okay to tell our kids what they can’t do—especially something that needs to be shouted quickly like, “DON’T! That’s hot!”—but we have to start giving them positive alternatives more often.

Instead of saying, “Don’t hit your sister,” we can say things like, “Use nice hands, please.”

Or, “We use our hands for things that are kind.”

Or, “If you’re angry, tell your sister how you’re feeling.”

Or, “Our hands were made to give hugs and high fives.”

When telling a kid they’re not allowed to shout at you, instead of saying, “Stop yelling at me, please,” you can say, “I can’t hear you when you shout. Please use your big kid voice.”

It’s about explaining to them what they CAN do, instead of always telling them what they CAN’T do. If we never give them a positive alternative, then they’ll never know how to get what they want in a mature way. They’ll never meet our expectations (or hopes) for them because we never explained it to them.

Here’s a quick list of things we often say “can’t” to that we could be saying “can” to:

“Don’t hit your sister,” could be, “Use nice hands, please.”

“Don’t yell at me,” could be, “Use your big kid voice, please.”

“Stop dragging all your toys in here,” could be, “Toys stay in your play area, please.”

“Stop screaming!” could be, “I can’t understand you when you yell.”

“Don’t brag,” could be, “If you’re excited for yourself, try saying, ‘Let’s celebrate!'”

“Stop telling your brother he’s mean,” could be, “Are you upset with your brother? Tell him why.”

“Stop fighting with each other,” could be, “Use a calm voice so your sister can understand you.”

“Don’t eat your boogers,” could be, “Use a tissue, please.”

“Stop running,” could be, “Walk, please.”

“Don’t climb on me,” could be, “Please give me some space.”

The next time you ask/tell a child not to do something, think to yourself, “Have I ever explained to them what they CAN do in this situation to get what they want?”

If you haven’t, it’s time to give it a shot. Set them up for success by providing them with the tools they need to meet your expectations.

Good luck!