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How many times have you yelled, “Don’t do that?” to a child about to do something he shouldn’t? And how many times has he gone right ahead and done it anyway? It’s enough to drive you crazy. “What doesn’t he understand about no?” we ask. He understands plenty. It’s just that he wants what he wants when he wants it. And when you put your attention on what he wants, all the better.

Stop putting so much attention on what you don’t want your children to do and put it on what you do want them to do. There are lots of kids—shall I say most?—who hear the word “don’t” and use it as a signal to go right ahead and do what it was they wanted in the first place.

What you put your focus on is where your energy goes and your child’s follows. What you focus on grows. It’s as simple as that. Whatever you want your child to get better at, that’s what needs your attention. For example, if you want your children’s respect, put your focus on respectful behavior. Show your child what respect looks like and try not to waver. When you yell and scream at them, that’s what they learn to do, too. When you take privileges away as a punishment, they will resist doing what you want as a way of punishing you. If we want them to take responsibility for their actions, we need to take responsibility for ours. Stop blaming your reactions on your child, or how exhausted you are. Your reactions are yours and you need to be accountable for them if you want your child to be accountable for hers.


  1.    “Don’t pour that soda in the kiddie pool.” Focus is on the soda and the kiddie pool. Result: That’s where the soda goes. Instead: “Can I have a taste of your soda, please? What flavor is it?” Focus shifts to the soda and you.
  1.   “Don’t you dare talk to me like that.” Focus is on blame of child. Result: Child gets defensive and blames back, “Don’t tell me what to do, you’re not the boss of me!” Instead: “I don’t like to be spoken to that way. Can you rewind and tell me what you want me to know.” Focus shifts to you and how you feel.
  1.    “Don’t lie to me. I saw what you did.” Focus is on lying and blame. Result: More lies to avoid the blame. Instead: “Can you tell me your side of the story?” Focus shifts to child’s point of view.
  1.    “Don’t hit your sister. How many times have I told you there is no hitting in this house?” Focus is on hitting. Result: The hitting continues. Instead: “I know you know it’s not right to hit.” Focus is on your trust of your child. “So that tells me you must have felt so angry you couldn’t stop yourself.” Focus is on child’s feelings-connection. Child now able to problem solve.
  1.    “Don’t do it that way.” Focus is on the wrong way. Result: It gets done the wrong way. Instead: “What do you think is the best way to get that done?” Focus is on child’s thought process.

No guarantees here, but there’s more chance for success.

We all want to bring out the best in our children. Yet we feel compelled to harp on their worst behavior with anger, blame, threats and criticism, thinking that will turn them around. When was the last time someone’s criticism of you motivated you to do what that person wanted? Do you really think that blame and judgment will encourage your child’s best to show up? When much of our energy focuses on the negative, what we get is negative. If we focus on the child as a problem, the child becomes a problem.

Imagine responding to an angry child who has just yelled, “No, I don’t want to” with, “Well you certainly know what you want and don’t want. Nobody is ever going to push you around. Your determination is admirable. Now how can we find a way to cooperate with each other?” Your child may actually end up feeling empowered by your words which will lead to cooperation a lot faster than criticism.

Our job as parents is to highlight (not praise) the qualities we see in our children that we want them to develop and to draw out attributes they may not know they possess. Never focus on the wrongdoing. Instead focus on your child’s competency.


Whenever I talk to parents about ending the use of rewards and punishments, I hear, “But doesn’t my child have to experience a consequence for her behavior?” Sounds logical; sounds appropriate. The problem is most parents don’t allow the kinds of consequences that actually teach lessons—natural ones.

Natural consequences of behavior often bring with them sadness, anger, disappointment, even failure for our children, which sometimes reflects negatively on us. We will do anything to avoid that—even by punishing. Taking away a privilege often shuts down a child’s unpleasant feelings or coerces corrected behavior—so we get what we want and think it’s working. Leaving our children to the natural consequences of their behavior may feel like abandoning them to the wolves.

Handing over the job of homework to your child may mean it doesn’t get done or presented on time. Can you allow that? When children are hitting each other day in and day out, are you willing to learn how to facilitate conflict resolution so they learn to work out their own problems or do you insist on taking something away, blaming one of them, or enforcing separation? Far easier.

If your child screams, “I hate you” and you isolate her or tell her she doesn’t get to watch TV, she feels unheard, misunderstood and very angry. She is trying to tell you something that she does not have the ability to say more maturely (hmm, do you ever react with an immature emotional outburst?) You will be more responsible when you genuinely listen, get to her level and say something like, “You sound so mad at me. You wish I had said something different and you don’t want to get ready to go.” Now she will at least feel heard and thus be more likely to cooperate.

Do you ever feel inspired to cooperate with someone who holds power over you by threatening what will happen if you don’t do what is asked? No. You may do it—but out of fear of the repercussions. That is not cooperation. That is not coming from a desire to help and support.

What about simply saying, “I don’t like that. That’s not okay with me. You clearly want X and I want Y. How can we make this work for both of us?” That requires time and negotiation to resolve a problem. It also means you have to be willing to say “No, that doesn’t work for me. What else can we think of?” It also means establishing a trusting relationship so that your child stays in the problem solving discussion because he knows you will work it out fairly and logically. It’s much easier to just send him to his room.

Children thrive on fairness and logic. Fairness does not mean, liking it. But when it makes sense they are more likely to buy into it. Taking away an iPhone because your son didn’t empty the dishwasher when you asked makes no sense and therefore provokes resistance and anger.

Saying, “As soon as the dishwasher has been emptied, I will be happy to take you to your practice. Let me know when you’re ready” does not make your son jump for joy, but it is the logical outcome if emptying the dishwasher is an agreed on chore.

The natural consequence for not unloading the dishwasher as promised is a parent who doesn’t feel like fulfilling the next request of the child. “I see the dishwasher still needs emptying. I will get you a snack after I see that has been done. Until then, I don’t feel like helping you, when you don’t help me.”

“I want the dishwasher emptied so I don’t have to do all the clean-up. Is that something I can count on you for or is there another part of cleanup that you would agree on?” Offer choices so your child doesn’t feel ordered. Nobody likes that.

When we threaten, take away privileges, or isolate them from us, we are breaking connection and harming our relationship. If your spouse began ignoring you or calling you names, I doubt you would tell him he can’t use the computer for the weekend. You would know there is a problem with the relationship. Why should it be any different with your child.

Notice that there is not one threat or statement of blame in anything I have suggested. Firmness in setting limits, in expecting help, in getting cooperation never needs blame, threat or consequences.