Talking is the main way we instruct our children. We tell, explain, remind, praise, warn, encourage, and correct. So when it comes to discipline, the words you use -- and the way you use them -- play an enormous role in shaping your child's behavior. The same goes for how carefully you listen. If your child feels that you respect her, she'll be more likely to comply.
Here, some simple guidelines to help you make sure that when you speak to your child about her behavior, you won't be wasting your breath. Instead, you'll be using positive discipline techniques that are instructive, not destructive, and caring, not callous.
Adjust Your Attitude
Be calm. This is perhaps the simplest and most important communication skill to remember. Too bad it's not as easy as it sounds. Children have an impressive array of behaviors that drive parents bonkers. There's the endless grating wail of a whine, the out-of-control shrieks of a temper tantrum, the dogged persistence of "Why? Why? Why?"
Nevertheless, an even-keeled response will produce better results than will betraying how you really feel. A neutral tone communicates that nothing your child does or says will ruffle you. This can stop an escalating battle of wills in its tracks and help you preserve the upper hand. A calm demeanor can be contagious too, squelching your child's agitation.
Keeping mellow also allows you to think through a situation more rationally and avoid saying something rash that would undercut your authority. Few kids are going to believe an overblown threat like "Stop screaming or we're never coming to the playground again!"
Be confident. Or at least always look that way in your child's eyes. That means sticking to your convictions. Self-doubt is common when it comes to discipline. You think, Maybe he's right -- I am being mean by saying no to just one more cookie. Or as your child collapses in a fit of protest on the sofa, you waver: Why did I turn off the TV -- what's the harm in another half-hour video? In fact, there may be nothing wrong with either of those things. But reversing yourself only shows that you're malleable and sends your child the message that if she howls loudly or persistently enough, you'll cave.
Be connected. Be sure you have your child's attention before you start to speak. Saying "Time to get your coat on" while looking directly at him signals more urgency than if you distractedly call out those words while you're packing up a diaper bag and talking on the phone.
Call him by name, then wait until he looks at you before you begin to talk, or go to him. Kneel down to a toddler's or preschooler's eye level. If your child is gazing away, say, "Look at me" or "Let me see your eyes."
Make sure that your words, tone, and body language all send the same message. Kids as young as 2 can sense that a parent's tone changes the meaning of her words.
Congratulate good behavior. You don't have to praise your child for every little action. But on balance, your directives and comments should be as much positive as corrective. Not all praise is alike, though; it's most helpful when it's specific and behavior-driven: "Thank you for reading to your sister while I was trying to finish the laundry. It made us both happy. You've really turned into a good reader." Unhelpful praise is generic: "You're so smart." "You're a good girl." The difference is that detailed praise gives a child useful, unambiguous feedback about her abilities.
Issue gentle reminders. When timed right, these help nudge a child toward good behavior. For example, as he's leaving the bathtub, say, "Please remember that wet towels go in the hamper, not on the floor." Reminders can help coach a child before you enter a dicey situation in which he's likely to act up. For instance, when heading into the store, tell him that you expect him to ride quietly in the cart and that he won't be able to run through the aisles.
Reminders can also serve as an intermediate step before advancing to punishment. If your child brings crackers into the living room and the rule is that he can't eat there, give a gentle warning. Remind him of the consequences too: "Eat in the kitchen or you won't be able to have any snack at all."
Present choices. Allowing your child to pick between two alternatives ("Do you want to put on your socks first or your shirt?") creates a win-win situation instead of one you risk losing by saying "Get dressed right now or we can't go." Offering a choice also helps her learn to think for herself and assume responsibility for her actions: "Using pot lids for cymbals is too noisy. You can either take them outside or make music with your xylophone instead."
Don't ask, tell. You'll circumvent unnecessary battles if you avoid phrases that invite the answer "No." "It's time for bed" is usually more effective than "Are you ready for bed?" "We'll leave the park after you go down the slide two more times" is a better bet than "Should we go home now?"
Try when/then. Kids are motivated more by the prospect of a reward than by a threat. It doesn't have to be a material incentive; letting your child know what will happen next puts a positive spin on the matter at hand. "When you've put away your train, then I'll bring out the play dough." "When I'm finished planting these flowers, then I'll play basketball with you."
Count to ten. If he doesn't comply with a request, say, "I'm going to start counting, and I'd like you to do _____ by the time I get to ten or else _____ will happen." Many kids can't resist a beat-the-clock challenge. Bonus: It's an easy way for you to keep calm. Be sure to follow through with your stated consequence if he doesn't do what he's supposed to.
Invite input. Tell a preschooler or an older child, "We have a problem. How do you think we can solve it?" This shifts the dynamics from parent versus child to the two of you together versus the problem.
Say "please" and "thank you." Model politeness in your interactions: "Please hang up your coat." "Thank you for cleaning up the spilled milk."
Focus Your Message
Be specific. You understand perfectly what you mean by the following phrases: "Be good," "Be nice," "Get ready for dinner." Your child, however, is more apt to comply with your wishes if you provide more details. Compare "Get ready for dinner" with "Dinner's almost ready. Please turn off the TV and wash your hands."
Remember that brief is best. Particularly with toddlers and preschoolers, use just a sentence or two to express your thoughts: "Put your bowl in the sink." "No eating grass." Even with an older child, limiting your message to the essentials works best: "Get your coat on or you'll be late for school." "Please don't use that tone of voice. It's not polite."
Stick to the core issue and a brief description of the consequences -- nothing more. Say "Here's the dog's dish. You forgot to feed him" rather than "You forgot to feed the dog. Can't you tell he's hungry? How would you feel if I forgot to feed you? You didn't remember to take off your muddy shoes before you came in the house, either, I see."
Use "I" phrases, not "you" phrases. It's not the child who's unlikable or reprehensible, it's the behavior. Sentences that start with "I" subtly shift the emphasis of your displeasure from the child to the action. Compare "You slob! You forgot to put your dirty clothes in the hamper again" with "I don't like it when you leave your dirty clothes on the floor because they make it hard to walk through your room." Kids like to please their parents and are more willing to comply if it's to make you happy.
Don't overload. Make one request at a time. Young children forget or become confused when given too many directives. Wait for your child to wash her hands before you instruct her to set the table. When the table is set, then talk about sitting up straight or singing with a mouth full of food.
Make it catchy. This approach doesn't work for every message, not even if you're Shakespeare. But you can sometimes create catchphrases that stick in a child's mind. Classic examples: "Stop, look, and listen" (before crossing the street) and "If you hit, you sit." One mother signals time-outs by saying "That's enough. Stop and drop."
Be realistic. Don't make idle or dramatic threats: "One more complaint and we're never going to a restaurant again." "If you don't stop bickering, I'm going to let you out of the car right here." Your child won't believe you, and he might call your bluff: "Okay, so let me out." Now you've taught him nothing about the behavior problem and created a new battle to deal with as well.
Reward compliance. Acknowledge your child's efforts when he does what you ask or does the right thing. You needn't go overboard. Simply say thank you. Or "Good job!" or "I appreciate your putting away that toy so fast."
Respond to noncompliance. When you let yourself be ignored, your child learns that this is an acceptable response and he's apt to try it again and again. If you've taken the trouble to make a request or issue a warning, you've also got to follow through and see that the task is completed or a penalty meted out.
Don't harangue. It's important for a child to understand what she did wrong; tell her in a simple, straightforward way at the time of the transgression. After she's made amends or behaved correctly or you've made your point, it's over. Avoid retelling the story of your child's "badness" to others. Give her a clean slate. When you let her start from scratch, you'll help nudge her toward positive behavior in the future.
Excerpted from the Parenting Guide to Positive Discipline, by Paula Spencer with the editors of Parenting, to be published this month by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc.