It was a 2-day, behavior conference that was packed with content. My brain was stuffed, positively stuffed, with goodies. I implemented many of them, although most fell by the wayside eventually, but this gem has transformed my parenting, and over 10 years later it still gets daily use.

Tell them what to do; not what not to do. -Alice Belgrade

So simple, so revolutionary. Like any true classic, it never loses its luster.

Let me give you an example. My husband painted our kitchen last week. When my son got home from school, we wanted to make sure that he didn’t smear the wet paint. The first inclination would be to say, “Don’t touch the paint!”, but instead, we told him to go right into the living room and get your cars.

He cheerfully complied. 

Let me be clear, my son would absolutely touch the paint if I admonished him not to, we would have an impromptu finger painting party if I so much as uttered the words, “don’t touch.” The same goes for “don’t jump off the bed,” “don’t pick your nose,”and “please don’t run outside naked.” It’s especially effective at Grammy’s house when I tell him “don’t touch the cactus” or “don’t go running onto Grammy’s new rug with your muddy boots on!” 

The power is in the focus. When you use the word “don’t” the brain ignores it, (that is long story short, if you want long story long, check the link) which means that the focus is on whatever you are saying don’t about. Essentially, when you tell a child “don’t” you’re pretty much giving them a suggestion of something to do which might not even be on their radar, in my example, it would be “touching the paint.”

Be aware, though, that this requires some brain re-wiring…your brain. You have to learn to think of re-directions instead of a simple command. With the wet paint example, I had time to think about it before he arrived home from school, and even to set up a lure in the other room to get him out of the danger zone. It’s a bit trickier on the fly. Say you’re on a walk and your child finds a giant, juicy puddle to stomp in; the natural reaction is a “don’t” command, so you have to be on your toes and come up with a worthy distraction instantaneously. In a pinch, I’m totally not above climbing a tree spotting a butterfly to chase in order to avoid the puddle. 

The great news is that once this trick is a habit, it becomes second nature to fling out a quick “do” off the cuff, and your children won’t even know you’re playing tricks on them, shoot, I still use it on my 17-year-old!

Alethea Mshar

Alethea Mshar is a mother of four children; an adult child who passed away of a drug overdose, one typical daughter and two sons who have Down syndrome, one of whom has autism spectrum disorder and complex medical needs. She has written "What Can I Do To Help", a guide to stepping into the gap when someone you know has a child diagnosed with cancer, which is available on Amazon, and is publishing a memoir titled, "Hope Deferred". She can be found on Twitter as leemshar, and blogs for The Mighty HuffPost as Alethea Mshar, as well as her own blog, Ben's Writing Running Mom on She is also on Facebook as Alethea Mshar, The Writing, Running Mom.