Language of Behaviour: How to use the power of words to parent

To say the task of ‘parenting’ is overwhelming, would be a gross understatement.  Behaviour management is a complicated beast:  Rules vs Freedom.  Boundaries vs Flexibility.  Bully vs. Pushover.  This is all in a day’s work.  But what if we took the emotion out of the equation and just examined behaviour through a ‘language lens’?  Could it be as simple as a ‘game of semantics’? Let’s look a little closer at what this ‘language of behaviour’ involves:


Are you currently experiencing the joys of a terrible two, threenager or teenager?  While you have a battle of wills with the small dictator in your life, remember the power of choice.  You provide the choices, you maintain the upper hand. 

Speech pathologists effectively use choices not just as behaviour management technique but also to reduce the language demands of the task. 

Instead of having to know and retrieve the answer, your child simply chooses from the two answers provided; you have scaffolded the task.

“Would like to wear these shoes OR those shoes?”

“Broad beans OR peas for greens tonight?”


‘If’ and ‘unless’ are known as ‘conditional conjunctions’ and these language elements are necessary for understanding the concept of a threat and a bribe.  Obviously, bribes and threats are not the gold standard in the world of behaviour but we (parents) are not perfect!

Bribe Formula =  ‘If x, then y’. 

“IF you eat your broccoli (x), you can have an ice block (y) for dessert.”

Threat Formula =  ‘No x unless y”. 

“I won’t give you a push on the swing (x) UNLESS you say ‘please’ (y).”


‘Pointing positive’ is a behaviour technique where you say ‘what to do’ rather than ‘what not to do’.   

The social-emotional side of ‘pointing positive’ is that you are parenting with positivity however from a language perspective it is easier to comprehend sentences without negation (ie. not).

“Don’t run!” INSTEAD SAY “Walking.”

“Don’t hit.”  INSTEAD SAY “Be gentle.”

Beware of using double negatives in your sentences with young children as these are even more difficult to comprehend.

“If you don’t take those undies off your head, we will not be going to the playground.”


“If you take the undies off your head, we can go to the playground.”


If what you are saying is a non-negotiable, don’t ask a question.  Parents are often guilty of asking a question instead of providing a statement.

As speech pathologists, we often work on understanding how to formulate a statement versus a question. 

“Are you ready to go in the car?”  INSTEAD SAY “It’s time to go in the car.”

“Do you need to go to the toilet before we leave?”  INSTEAD SAY “Come and do a wee on the toilet before we leave.”

This ‘language of behaviour’ strategy is easier said than done as often parents are busy avoiding sounding like a drill sergeant.But if all else fails, resort to option 2 (bribes and threats!).

If you would like to read some more behaviour, there are plenty of insightful blogs at Simply Kids by Stephanie Wicker and plenty of evidence linking language and behaviour by The Hanen Organisation—Printer-Friendly/Research-in-your-Daily-Work/Printer-Friendly—Behaviour-Regulation.aspx )

There is simply no way one could possibly overstate the power of words.  In fact, if we as parents learn to use the power of words, we might experience some wins in the battle of behaviour.  Well it’s worth a shot anyway!

Thanks for hearing our call.

Your Little Birdies,

Janice and Tania

Bear Hug Unboxing

If you are looking for something to entertain the kids over the Easter break, our Bear Hug book box (for 3+ year olds) will certainly take the sting out of some long days!  An added bonus of our book boxes is that #winning feeling you get knowing you are doing something really positive for your child’s communication and literacy development.  We at Little Birdie Books are so much more than books in a box and this blog post will give you a little peek inside one of our best book boxes yet…’Bear Hug’!

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Are you raising ‘brave kids’?

‘Brave kids’ is definitely up there on my mental list of ‘how to be a good parent’ but how to achieve this? Your guess is as good as mine!
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What’s Up Doc? Talk with a G.P.

Welcome to another edition of the “What’s Up Doc?” Q & A series! In celebration of this month’s book box theme, The Doctor’s Kit, we have had the pleasure of interviewing a variety of professionals in the medical field. This week we will hear from Dr Ian Black, General Practitioner.

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What’s Up Doc? Talk with a Radiologist

Welcome to the “What’s Up Doc?” Q & A series! In celebration of this month’s book box theme, The Doctor’s Kit, we have had the pleasure of interviewing a variety of professionals in the medical field. This week we will hear from Dr John Blazak, Radiologist.

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5 Little Tips for Talking to Little Ones

If you have to say “Cat got your tongue?” when talking to a child, then you’re doing it wrong! Winning the affection of children is something that most of us endeavour to master in our lifetime. As Ralph Waldo Emerson states “To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children…this is to have succeeded.” Some of us work harder than others to achieve this. We all know the uncle or friend at social events who looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger from Kindergarten Cop on the ground, covered in a swarm of offspring. Whatever your motivation for talking to little ones, be it bonding or to build their communication skills, the truth is that sometimes it is hard work. Here are 5 ways to work smarter rather than harder when trying to converse with a child:

1. Question. Answer. Question. Answer. ZZZZZ…

In the mind of a child, asking questions implies testing but making comments implies interest. Much like a conversation with an adult, one with too many questions can become very long in the tooth. It ends up feeling like a game show where you are the unassuming and under prepared contestant. Children will tend to clam up when asked too many questions which prevents the conversation staying on the one topic. By balancing our questions with comments, we create more opportunities for children to take a turn in the back-and-forth interaction.

Did you know studies have shown a strong connection in the number of turns children take in a conversation and the scores they receive on standardised language tests? Check out this great article by Andrea Lynn Koohi, Hanen Staff Writer on ‘The Power of Turn Taking’

As adults, we should try to ‘Strive for 5’ conversational turns on the same topic with young children to strengthen their depth of language and communication skills.

2. Never give a child the option of saying no

“Would you like a cuddle?” No. “Would you like to have dinner now?” No “Can I play with you?” No. Harsh but true. Try asking an open-ended question instead of a closed one. Imagine a closed question being like a door closing in your face while an open question is an open door…full of opportunities and possibilities.

When you ask a question that can be answered with a yes or no, you have asked a closed question. “Did you have a good day at school today?” The answer will invariably be “yep”.

Try open questions or wh questions and you might get a longer response. “Who did you play with today?” “What stories did you read today?” “Where did you go today other than your classroom?” To extend on the typical ‘wh’ questions, try ‘Blank’s Levels of questions’ when you read with your child

3. Be interested NOT interesting

By asking about something you’re interested in rather than the child’s interests, you will most certainly send the conversation to a halt. Children are ego-centric. It seems like common sense but some people are much better than others at letting the child lead the interaction. It’s all about something called ‘cognitive resourcing’.

If a child has to use all their ‘cognitive resourcing’ or ‘brain power’ to stay focussed and maintain attention on what the adult is interested in, then less brain capacity is available for the topic of conversation.

If however, they are interested in what they are talking about all their energy can be dedicated to the discussion at hand.

4. Pitch at the right level

Children have very different language requirements depending on their age. Many adults don’t adjust their language when conversing with children and often use jokes that go over the child’s head. So when does humour develop in children? Well like most developmental milestones, it develops in stages and the ages vary considerably.

However, jokes that rely on sarcasm or irony are usually not understood until around age 5. Interestingly, a few pre-requisite skills are required for a sense of humour to develop including socialisation, imagination, perspective and language.

5. Be a player not a spectator

The number one way to get a young child to open up and “have a chat” is to get down to their level and PLAY! All too often, adults will stand by supervising the play instead of joining in.

Joining in and playing builds communication non-verbally first and provides an engaging and shared context for verbal communication.

But let’s face it, there are only so many pretend cups of tea one can drink or games of hide and seek that one parent can endure.
KINDERGARTEN COP, Arnold Schwarzenegger, 1990. ©Universal Pictures

And of course, if all else fails, you have two options:
1) Enjoy the peace and quiet of being disliked OR
2) Give them a Freddo Frog and they’ll be your BFF (best friend forever).

Thanks for hearing our call,
Your Little Birdies xx