Think for a moment about how many times a day you notice your child doing something right. Now, think about how many times you notice them doing something wrong. If you are like many parents, you notice far more negatives than positives. Why do we do this? Because we love our children. We know it is our job to teach them the skills they need to succeed in life, and we feel intense pressure not to miss a teaching moment. So, we remind and coax, we correct and bribe, we do whatever we can to make sure the lesson gets through. While this seems like the right thing to do, we need to be careful where we direct our attention.
I remember a day where I observed a child picking her nose at the park. Pretty normal behavior for toddlers. However, each time the child picked her nose, the parent would say, “Stop picking your nose.” Each time the child heard that, it reminded her, “Ooh, there’s that nose I could be picking,” and she went right back to it. While I watched this cycle rinse and repeat about 20 times, I thought about how our attention to the negative often backfires.
How do we deal with those developmental annoyances? What do we do when our children get stuck in some annoying behavior that is driving us batty? We ignore it!
Huh? Did the parent coach just say to ignore it? Yes, I did.
Change your focus
If we spend all our time focusing on the things our kids are doing wrong, they are getting a whole lot of attention for that. Whether positive or negative, our children want our attention. What reason do they have to stop the annoying behavior and risk losing that precious attention? Instead, if we focus our attention on the things our children are doing right, they are more likely to continue those behaviors and let go of the annoying ones.
Children, like grown-ups, don’t like to be micromanaged.
Imagine for a moment that throughout your entire workday, your boss is hovering over you. Each time you get off track, they remind you of what you need to be doing. When you tell them you will get to it in a moment, they say you need to do it now. When you make a typo, they are there to point it out. Whenever you are doing something they don’t see as valuable, they are right there, nagging you to do what they want. How motivated would you be to cooperate? How willing would you be to work on your mistakes? Would you really give it your all that day? I think not.
Children, like grown-ups, don’t like to be micromanaged. They don’t like to feel controlled, and they don’t like to be reminded constantly of their shortcomings. When it happens regularly, they begin to feel like they can’t do anything right. That discouraged feeling is likely to lead to either defiance as our children try to maintain their dignity, or withdrawal and hopelessness as they see no reason to even try. This is not a good place to be, as an adult or as a child.
Over the years, I have helped many parents with challenges such as thumb-sucking, yelling, nose-picking and many other frustrating but relatively harmless behaviors. They have addressed these issues by temporarily ignoring the problem and shifting their energy toward what is going well in their family. Sometimes that’s not an easy task. But, I am always amazed at how quickly it works. Could it really be this simple? Does it work with adults? It was time for me to try an experiment of my own.
A week without negative comments
My husband and I were going through a busy few weeks with lots of minor stressors, enough to make us grumpy. We were bickering over little things and something needed to shift. After seeing the power of letting it go work so well with children, I thought I would try it out on my unsuspecting partner. I committed to one week of no negative comments. No micromanaging, no nagging, no eye rolls — instead, I would express only gratitude for the positive.
How would I actually keep my mouth shut for one week? I mean, his socks under the kitchen table? Could I really just not say a word? I figured this would be the hardest week of my life!
When clients commit to a period of ignoring the negative, we come up with a support plan for how they will actually do this. So, I spent some time thinking about how I would support myself through this positivity challenge. I let a close friend know that she would be on my speed dial for the week in case I just had to complain. I got out my journal and committed to writing down any annoyances during the week. If they were still bugging me at the end of the week, I could share them then. I thought about how I would celebrate each day that I had redirected my energy to the positive.
On day one, there were a few things — the darn socks of course. But I let it go. I didn’t even need to phone a friend. I felt proud of myself, and a little sneaky since my husband had no idea what I was up to. By day three, I didn’t notice anything that bothered me. Could there really be nothing to write down in my book of grievances?
Day four was when the magic really started. The bickering was gone. My husband was present and engaged, and there was not a single thing bothering me. Day five, he came home with flowers. By the end of the week, every possible bit of connection, romance and laughter I could want was present. He took care of extra chores just because he wanted to give me a break and the socks were not under the table. I was blown away. It worked.
So, what did my husband say when I told him about my plan? I started by asking if he noticed anything different. He told me he just felt freer. He felt warmer toward me; he felt really loving and wanted to do things that showed his love for me. Wow. When I told him what I had done, we both sat in awe of the power of the positive.
Kids do better when they feel better
Ready, set, ignore! Next time an annoying but relatively harmless behavior pops up in your child, and you find yourself in the continuous loop of nagging and coaxing, give ignoring a try. The hardest part is managing our own emotions. Remember, it's not that we are letting our kids get away with something, it's that we are accepting the fact that kids do better when they feel better. When they feel the connection and love that comes with focusing on their strengths, they want to behave, they want to cooperate, and they will likely keep doing it. Added bonus: positivity is contagious. Don’t be surprised if you see greater connection and happiness all around you.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2014, and updated in September 2021.