“Don’t drop my earring in the soup,” Jenine said to my three-year-old-son Finn.

I knew what would happen next.

We had invited Jenine for dinner, and Finn had admired her blue-beaded earrings. I don’t wear earrings, and the dangling jewelry spurred his curiosity. She obliged him by removing one and passing it to Finn. His inspection took place right over his bowl of curried cauliflower soup.

Seconds after she had told him not to drop it in the soup, he did. By accident, of course. But it was no accident. He was programmed.

If you’ve read many books on parenting, you’re familiar with this wisdom: Phrase your desired outcome in the positive. Instead of saying, “Do not hit,” say, “Keep your hands to yourself.” Instead of saying, “Don’t shout,” say, “Please use an inside voice.” Instead of saying, “Stop peeing in your pants,” say, “Get to the potty right now!” A command should be phrased in the positive.

It’s not just new-age blah blah blah. It’s how our brains are wired.

The first time I encountered this concept was not with my toddler, but in graduate school for my master’s in linguistics. In cognitive terms, “Do not drop the earring in the soup,” is not the same as “Keep the earring safe.” The negative phrasing tends to keep the “negative” idea at the forefront of the mind.

Here’s why. The human brain has a more difficult time processing negations. Upon hearing a phrase: “don't want X,” the brain first processes “want X,” and then inserts the “don’t.” Bottom line: When you focus on what you do not want, the brain concentrates on the object to be avoided more than it sticks to the relational word “not.”

It’s also the law of attraction. What you pay attention to is what tends to arrive in your life. Perversely, what you tell your toddler not to do is what will happen.

Not convinced? Consider this example from cognitive scientist and linguist George Lakoff. In his book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, he relates an exercise he gives his Berkeley students in Cognitive Science 101. “The exercise is: Don’t think of an elephant. Whatever you do, do not think of an elephant. I’ve never found a student who is able to do this. Every word, like elephant, evokes a frame, which can be an image or other kinds of knowledge: Elephants are large, have floppy ears and a trunk, are associated with circuses, and so on. The word is defined relative to that frame. When we negate a frame, we evoke the frame.”

Lakoff also cites the example of Richard Nixon, who learned this lesson the hard way. Under pressure to resign, Nixon addressed the nation on TV post-Watergate and said, “I am not a crook.” Everyone heard he was a crook.

So what does this mean for parents? Here’s an action plan:

1) Pay attention to the statements that come out of your mouth. Listen in particular for any phrase containing the words “don’t,” “not,” “no,” or “can’t.”

2) If you do say something phrased negatively, immediately rephrase the statement in the positive.

3) Listen for other people giving negative commands and observe the outcomes. In your own mind, rephrase their command.

4) Practice, practice, practice. I predict that in a week of conscious speaking, positive phrasing will become second nature. You will be able to catch the negative BEFORE it comes out of your mouth.

Let’s start practicing now. Think of positive ways to rephrase the following statements: Don’t color on the wall. Don’t use that tone of voice. You can’t have the blue truck.

Some of my ideas:Please put the pen down. Please use a big boy voice. Here’s the red truck. There are as many ways to rephrase as there are potentially negative situations.

Of course, sometimes it’s difficult to think of the positive command, especially if there’s some haste necessary. For instance, how would you immediately rephrase, “Don’t eat that mushroom!” Hindsight suggests, “Spit it out,” or “Drop it,” or even “Stop!” would all be good choices. But I have found that the mind easily races to the worst-case scenario. And verbalizes it.

No matter what you say, there is the chance that the child will still do whatever the heck she or he wants. Consider the two following commands used recently in my house.

Do not throw the fork on the floor.


Please put the fork gently on the table.

Both resulted in the fork being thrown on the floor. Which in turn, resulted in the fork being taken away and the boy being excused from the table.

Sometimes, even the right words aren’t good enough. There’s a reason they call it an action plan.