Why «Don’t» Doesn’t Work

Being a natural parent means trying to figure out what human nature is really all about, and design the child rearing to fit with the natural terms. This goes for healthy nutrition and natural movement, of course, but also for how to «discipline» your child.

Before I write the rest of this post, I would like us to venture upon a tiny experiment together. I want you to close your eyes and NOT think about white horses while you do so. Ready? OK. Close your eyes. Now open them, and tell me what you visualized while sitting there. It was those white horses, right? The ones you shouldn’t think about? Exactly. So what in the world makes you think that it helps telling your children what NOT to do?

The thing is, the human brain is not capable of processing negatives. It simply ignores the word «don’t» when it deciphers a message. We think in images, and the word «don’t» doesn’t have one. The white horses do. Your brain will therefore have to create a mental image of the horses to understand the message it was given. The negative word cannot be added to the command until that image is firmly in place – and by then, the focus is already where it shouldn’t be.

Let’s say your child is standing there with a cup in her hand and a cunning look in her eyes. You interpret this as to mean that the poor cup will soon hit the wall, and you figure it would be best to avoid that mess. You decide to discipline your child. The message you send out is «don’t throw the cup into the wall!» – and boom.

Guess what just flew through the air?

If you use the word «don’t» as a command to your child, you just, quite unintentionally, discovered the most fail proof way of getting her to do the exact opposite of what you wanted her to. This is not because she is being «mean» or «opponent», but it’s because this is the way the human brain works. It makes no sense to punish her for this; she only did what you gave her a mental image of doing.

It’s not her fault.

Now, let’s see how this situation developes. «No!», you yell at her, «I TOLD you not to throw that cup! DO NOT THROW THAT CUP!». From your child’s perspective, you are now yelling at her for doing what she was instructed to do, and at the same time, you’re actually enhancing the image of a cup being thrown. Furthermore, you’ve also criticized her for being cooperative with you. If this pattern repeats itself over and over, it will develop into a downward spiral, leading to loss of trust and respect, in an environment where your child is growing up in an eternal «don’t, shouldn’t and mustn’t».

Luckily, this knowledge can be used for good as well. Instead of wearing yourself out on messages that will never go home with your child and ruining the communication between you, you can focus on the positive. Tell your child what you actually WANT her to do instead – tell her that «mom wants you to put the cup nicely down on the table», and see if that won’t do the trick. Now you’ve given her the mental image of what you want: her putting the cup on the table, quietly, and that mom thinks this is a good thing (every kid loves positive attention). And then, when you enhance by saying «there you go, love, put the cup nicely down!» with a smile, you’ve built a much stronger foundation for the both of you. You have made it possible for you to communicate in a positive way, and she has learned about the positive things you expect from her, while also giving her a great self-image. It’s a win-win situation.

So. Replace all your «don’t’s» with positive affirmations instead, and observe how the dynamics between you change!


  • Don’t stand in that chair -> Sit down nicely, please.
  • Don’t throw your food on the floor! -> Please put your food in your mouth.
  • Don’t walk in the middle of the road! -> Keep to the side of the road, please.

Also, add valid explanations, even if your child is very small. Tell her that you get scared she’ll fall down and hurt herself if she is standing on her chair, that her tummy will get nice and full if she remembers to eat something, and that she’ll be safest on the side of the road. And you know, it’s OK for you to tell her «because I’m tired and I don’t particularly want to clean the kitchen right now», too!

Have you tried this approach with your child? How did it go? Please share in the comment field below!

Creative Commons License photo credit: Christina Ann VanMeter

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