Positive Commands

When you want your child to change their behavior, always say what you want positively. "Don't be so loud" becomes "use your restaurant voice". "Quit running around" becomes "stand right next to me".

AlistairCockburn taught this one to me. He tells the story of one of his kids spilling something gooey. He yelled, "Don't touch it! Keep your hands out! Don't smear that around!" When his child became confused, he turned it into a PositiveCommand?- "Hands up!" Problem solved.

I find making PositiveCommands to be a real challenge sometimes. Often when I'm getting frustrated with my kids, I find that I have reverted to "don't"s. Often, remembering to use PositiveCommands turns the heat of the situation right down.
I am sorry to report that this pattern doesn't work well for me. I find myself saying "Use your indoor voice" about five times before I give up and shout "Be QUIET!" And what, pray tell, is the "positive command" version of "Don't hit your sister with that baseball bat"? "Play nicely with your sister" doesn't carry the same urgency, somehow.

What about the 'Hands up!' mentioned above?

What *does* sometimes work for me is positive reinforcement: catching the child doing something wonderful and praising it.

As with all child-rearing techniques, what works depends as much upon the child and the parent as on the technique. I have one kid who "weeps with delight when I give her a smile/and trembles with fear at my frown", and one kid whom you have to whack between the eyes with a two-by-four to get his attention. The child-rearing strategies I learned from the first needed major field upgrades for the second.

--BetsyHanesPerry
"Be QUIET!" is a positive command. My father's favorite, "Stop making so damned much noise," is not. I stand by the rule.

I have four children, all very different, although I have yet to see the "tremble with fear at my frown" thing. I think the rule is universal, although the application is a little different with different kids- some need physical touch to get their attention, others work on voice alone, and a few don't listen and need physical PositiveCommands. --KentBeck
Which connotation of "positive" are we using? Does "positive" mean "logical positive" or "self-esteem reinforcing"? I had assumed that both applied, so "Be quiet!" was a violation.

Perhaps it's time to discuss the forces this pattern solves.

My sense was that the proposed forces were

I disagree with the second force; "Don't hit your sister with that baseball bat!" -- a sentence I have actually needed -- is clearer and more precise than "Play nicely with your sister". It is also, in my experience, more likely to succeed in achieving my desired result. Yes, I have also shouted "Stop!", which counts as a PositiveCommand? in the logical sense. I think it's quibbling to count "Stop" as a PositiveCommand? but "Don't" as a negative command.

How can a generative pattern be universal if I tell you that I have applied it in good faith and found it lacking?

--BetsyHanesPerry
Excellent questions!

1. Did I mean logical positive or "self-esteem reinforcing"? Well, first I violently disagree that telling a child they are making a mistake takes away from their self-esteem, so I don't accept the distinction. However, I meant much more the first- telling a child what to do is much more likely to produce the results you want than telling them not to do something. Sometimes there is no positive- "stop licking the car" (one I have actually used), doesn't seem amenable to this approach.

2. Regarding the forces you mention. I think you are absolutely correct on the second force. That's what drives the pattern. You know what you want done, the kid often doesn't know what to do, you'll get frustrated if the kid does the wrong thing- therefore, tell them what to do.

3. How can this be a universal generative pattern? I didn't claim that it was. I said this works well for me, it is an interesting and challenging parental discipline, and it works well for my kids.

The pattern, or rather a pattern much like this, may still be universally (or at least largely) applicable. I just may not have communicated it correctly, or you may not have applied it correctly, or of course it may just not be all that universal.

Looking back at your comments I can see that you understand the pattern differently than I do. I'll see if I can express myself more clearly. --KentBeck


(Alistair chipping in): What initiated this attitude in me was the book TheFirstThreeYearsOfLife?, which I can recommend to every parent (along with Solve Your Child's Sleeping Problems, which Betsy recommends in SleepProblems). The author told the story of sitting in the living room of a parent as the little girl came in. The mother immediately said, 'Whatever you do, don't touch the radio!' Sure enough, with seconds, the girl was touching the radio and got into trouble.

Reflecting on this and watching both children and adults deal with commands, I formed two notions: (1) that we generate behavior from pictures to a large extent, and (2) that we not really possess a 'not' construct. Negation is an operation we apply to something else. The research book 'Deduction' by Johnson-Laird supports these notions from a cognitive research perspective.

The consequence of the notions is the following: when you speak, you create a picture. The 'not' part of the picture is dropped and stored as an operator. The remaining part of the picture draws the behavior of the person. This applies as much to adults as to children, just adults are more practiced at applying the 'not' operator.

In the case of the girl with the radio, 'Don't touch the radio' means 'Touch the radio (not)'. There is a picture of the girl's hands on the radio. This picture draws the girl toward itself, with the result as expected.

I have seen this work both with me and other adults, where what is in our minds is a negative statement so strong that it draws the conversation over a long period to the exact utterance of the undesired sentence. Read any of the Get Whatever You Wish books, and you will find similar.

So here is a kid doing something you don't like. You think, "Do anything but that" - which isn't true anyway, as you will find out in a few seconds. So you say, 'Don't touch my pen!' Kid wants to be good, and immediately picks up your ink stand instead. Now you are in the position of naming everything you don't want them to touch. So what my wife and I agreed to start doing is go to the trouble of naming something we wouldn't mind them doing. We want them to think of such of thing, so with just a bit more energy, we think up such a one for them. The forbidden thing never gets named, so never gets a picture. The kid is amenable to suggestion and starts doing the acceptable thing.

This is tough sometimes. "Don't touch the hot oven", and "Stay out of the road" were the hardest. Both draw the picture that you don't want. "Fingers off the oven" is no better. I have found that "stay back from the road/oven" works well, as it seems to draw a picture of a barrier between the kid and the oven/road. The story with my son and the hot chocolate was the most pronounced. The poor boy was developing a complex by the millisecond as I yelled (while running for napkins): Don't touch the table! No, don't put your hands on your pant! No, don't put your hands on your shirt! No, (whatever else he had tried to do)! Put your hands up!' Then both he and I were relieved.

"Don't hit your sister with that baseball bat!" becomes "Put that baseball bat down!" or "Baseball bats are for hitting balls only, not people, so find a ball to hit or put it down." Otherwise you might find yourself saying, "And don't balance it on her head, either!" seconds later (it wasn't a baseball bat for us, but it was something similar, and that's what happened).

My wife and I laugh when we forget and use the negatives. Almost guaranteed we are making another correction within seconds when do that. It is so funny to watch, once you get tuned to it. The bad news is, it takes extra energy from the parents. When we run down is when we forget.

We still use negatives to be more precise about what we don't allow or don't want. And I still yell "SHUT UP" from time to time (but the kids have invented a 'be quiet' game which is remarkable to watch).

Forces? I think they were mentioned in this text somewhere. - AlistairCockburn
Aha! Alistair's essay focused the pattern for me.

It is absolutely true that saying "Don't do that!" can suggest ideas the child hadn't previously considered. This is why generations of parents have told the "My mama said 'Don't put beans up your nose'" story to each other (but not, if they are wise, to young children!). Furthermore, it is also true that a child who is feeling cooperative can often be distracted from an unwise activity to an appropriate activity.

The case where PositiveCommands often fails me is in dealing with a child who is deliberately being mischievous/naughty. A 4-year-old who is holding a baseball bat over his sister's head has already formed a very clear picture of what he wants to do. Furthermore, he knows that the baseball bat is not for hitting people. The problem here is not a lack of information, it is good information coupled with a bad intent. In this case, the PositiveCommand? "Put that baseball bat DOWN!" leads to disastrous consequences. With a wide smile, he did just that... on her head.

Why? It is because of the child's intent, not because of the form of the command. A malicious intent can distort a PositiveCommand? just as easily as a NegativeCommand?. And formulating a non-distortable PositiveCommand? can consume precious time...

It is quite likely that the reason I find NegativeCommands? more effective in times of stress is that my children recognize the stress, not the command. When I say, "Please use your indoor voice", I am generally calm. When I say "Be QUIET!" I am angry. Calm = "You may possibly get away with disobeying me"; Angry = "Don't push Mama any further." The fault, dear Horatio, lies not in our commands but in ourselves.

--BetsyHanesPerry
"Whatever you do, don't think about a white horse!"
Exactly. So I actually find myself these days criticizing by negating a positive comment: "I see you are not sitting on the chair." (And the "beans up the nose" phrase has always terrified me ... so much so that I am sure I am going to tell it one day). Also I have fun with my 8-year-old now, saying, "Think up something to do that I would approve of at the moment." - AlistairCockburn
"What would you do if you were in a sharing mood?" works, too. -KentBeck
Here are some PositiveCommands that work well:
One other point that I'd make is that there are times when a "negative" command is necessary - usually to prevent bodily harm. In these cases, an incomplete sentence might help: Don't! forces a pause, if the cognition path described above is accurate, because there is no action attached, and the child must look at you to get a cue. --Pete Hardie
Those interested training with positive reinforcement might want to check out Karen Pryor's _Don't Shoot the Dog_. Karen was once a dolphin trainer at Hawaii's SeaLife? Park. It's almost impossible to humanely use *negative* reinforcement with a dolphin: Picking up your bucket of fish and walking away is about as close as you can come. Consequently, dolphins are trained almost exclusively using positive methods. Most of the training solutions that have been described on this page amount to "training an incompatible behavior" to prevent an undesirable one.
This theory rests on the idea that humans aren't born with a "not" operator, and it's difficult for children to parse a whole sentence and apply a "not" to it. That's why I wish more programming languages complemented their "if" and "while" structures with "unless" and "until". The only languages I know which have "unless" for sure are PerlLanguage and RubyLanguage.

Strangely, CobolLanguage, which purports to be the most English-like, doesn't have UNLESS, even though it would probably make condition-names (88-level data declarations) even more worthwhile than they already are.

I'm not sure if it has UNLESS, but InterCal does have PLEASE.

This is another spot where CeeLanguage is both bane and boon. I can just see eyes crossing the first time a C programmer sees this used in code:
 #define unless(x)  if(!(x))
 #define until(x)   while(!(x))

This reminds me of the (probably) apocryphal story of housetraining a chimp. After a period of negative reinforcement to prevent it peeing on the floor, it still wet everywhere but then smacked itself on the head and jumped out the window.
Good books on this subject are "How to talk so kids will listen" ISBN 0380811960 and "How to talk so kids can learn." ISBN 0684824728

The techniques are supposedly to use on kids but I have often thought whey would work well for people in general and especially people working on projects. I have tried several of their strategies with good results. It's hard to keep it up and not fall into old bad habits though.


Real-world example. Two soldiers are brawling in a barracks, and their sergeant shows up. The average sergeant will not try to get between them, nor yell at them to stop fighting. His response:

"Ateeeeen...SHUN!"

Since it's unthinkable to disobey, and impossible to fight at attention, this positive command breaks up the fight rather quickly.

Yep. That's the one. As in the baseball bat example, "put it down" turned out to be the wrong positive. "John, bring that bat here." would be the alternative. The nasty part is that we, as adults, have to do lots of extra mental work in that half-second or so. If we are tired, then it is a lot easier to say what we know we don't want than to conjure up an acceptable alternative in short order. --AlistairCockburn


The above discussion is focused on communicating with children, but the same idea is important for managers. Tell people what you want them to do, not what you don't what them to do.

For example, "Follow these coding guidelines" is better than "Don't write ugly code." "CodeUnitTestFirst" is better than "Don't put any untested code into the production system."

There are some differences between the uses of this principle with co-workers as opposed to children. You can assume that co-workers won't be confused by the "picture" of what you don't want them to do, and can generally assume that they will not seek a malicious way to follow the letter of your request. Also, you can expect a greater level of independent judgment from co-workers (you don't need to tell them to stay away from the stove or the road). You can generally specify only the goal to be met, rather than the specific set of steps to carry out.

It is important to be specific about expected results. I've had managers tell me "I don't have a task to assign to you right now, so find something useful to do". That's fine if the manager doesn't really care what I do with my time, but not very helpful if the manager actually expects useful results. "Look at this, and tell me what you think" isn't likely to have valuable results either.
From a Who's the Boss episode where Tony is learning about positive commands:

(Tony and Angela come home to see Billy poking around at things on the mantel with a broom)

Ang: No. Don't!

Tony: Stop! Uh.. Broom elsewhere!


Part of a potential PartnerPatternsLanguage


See HowToTalk, MichaelHeel, BodyFollowsEyes


CategoryCommunication

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