What Is “Don’t” Sensitivity?”

How often over the course of the day do parents hear their children using the word “Don’t”? “Don’t tease the dog!” “Don’t hit your sister!” “Don’t chew with your mouth full!” “Don’t drink and drive!”

“Don’t” is twice as hard as “do”

Several years ago I was impressed when I heard someone talk about the concept that I call “Don’t Sensitivity” which involves becoming aware of the mental process needed when you use the word “don’t”.

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Master Trainer, Curricula Writer, Researcher, Mother and Grandmother

I learned that it is twice as complicated for the brain when you use the word “don’t” as when you use the word “do.”

Think about it.

If someone says, “Don’t think about a pink elephant,” your mental process requires that you first consider what a pink elephant looks like and then you have to erase the image from your mind. That’s two steps that are needed to not think about a pink elephant.

If instead someone says, “Think about a purple fish,” your mind can go directly to that image.

When parents say things like, “Don’t rock back in the chair,” a child first will imagine rocking back in the chair and then need to stop from doing the action just thought about. In the nanosecond from the first step to the second step, the image of doing the action has popped to mind, making it more challenging now to stop the action.

If instead a parent says, “Sit up straight in the chair so its legs are flat on the floor,” the child has a direct image of what to do without that first image of what not to do.

Negative results of drug campaign

In Jonah Berger’s book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, he describes the ultimately negative results of the campaigns that tell teenagers to not do drugs (due to the same theory as in our pink elephant example). It fails by inviting teens to become aware of the possibilities of doing drugs along with the suggestion that it’s a popular thing to do; then the teenager has to undo that thinking. Which again, is a two-step process.

Berger said the unexpected impact was to arouse a curiosity about the whole drug phenomenon. Obviously this was not the intention of the campaign, but an apparent outcome was that drug abuse did not go down as a result the campaign. His research suggests that it may have negatively influenced teenagers’ curiosity about trying drugs.

This does not mean that parents should never use the word “don’t.”

The suggestion is that parents go to the “do” statement first, focusing a child or teenager’s mind on what is the desired behavior. “Look both ways before you cross the street,” is a better first statement then “Don’t run in the street until you look both ways.” With the first statement, the child knows what to do as a first thought and with the second statement, the image of running in the street can come into the mind first. With an impulsive child, it then may be much harder to resist that impulse in order to do what is being asked, which is the exact opposite!

We all might use this idea for ourselves in thinking in terms of what we should or want to do and postponing thoughts about what we should not do. “Think about the positives that you want to do” is a better message than “Don’t think about the negatives!”

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Think about directives you have given to your children in the last few hours. How often did you ask or tell them to do something versus to not do something?
  2. Try being much more “Don’t Sensitive” and focus your directives on encouraging the hoped-for behavior first and possibly not even mentioning the what-not-to-do suggestion. Notice if your children are more responsive in a positive way to messages that are more about what they should do and not what they should not do.

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network