#SaidAroundHere: “I don’t like that.”

i dont like that flamingosThis one’s geared toward the Carers in schools and daycare centers, but I bet some of my nanny and parent readers can to relate, too!

Many of us have been promoting the phrase “I don’t like that” with our kids for years now. (I first started teaching this communication strategy to kids after a Conscious Discipline workshop with Becky Bailey in 2009.) When it was originally introduced into our childrens’ vocabularies, it was meant as an alternative to “stop that!” and “don’t,” and with any luck, a way to prevent tattling. We wanted our kids to be able to stand up for themselves; we wanted them to be empowered to let others know what was and was not okay with them.

When used appropriately, “I don’t like that,” is a wonderful tool employed in friendly social situations when some boundaries may have gotten crossed. A few examples in case you’re new to using this great tool:

  • Adaline and Bartolo are playing with Legos together when Adaline bumps Bartolo’s building with her truck, suggesting some kind of demolition. Bartolo can say, “I don’t like my building being broken.” * Adaline will most likely make a different plot suggestion.
  • Chante and Dani are having a great time playing together on the slide. Chante pushes Dani down the slide before Dani is ready. Dani can say, “I don’t like being pushed down the slide.” * Chante will most likely say, “Okay!” and they will continue playing without pushing.
  • Eddie and Farid are play-fighting as Ninja Turtles when Eddie jumps on Farid’s back. Farid can say, “I don’t like it when you jump on my back,” * and the play will most likely continue, sans back-jumping.

*Note: the word “that” in the phrase “I don’t like that” has been replaced with the naming of what specific action is disliked. This is the ideal way to teach children to use this communication strategy. The phrase “I don’t like that” alone is often unhelpful because it’s too vague to communicate to the friend what should be changed. Children can often learn to complete the phrase “I don’t like…” with a specific reference as soon as they are able to speak in sentences.

But here’s something we didn’t expect: many teachers have begun using this phrase with their students.

Certainly, if I’m in my classroom and Gemma tries to tickle me, it’s appropriate for me to tell her with a surprised smile, “Oh! You know what, I actually don’t like to be tickled!” But it becomes inappropriate when we, as authority figures, use the “I don’t like that” tool to express displeasure with a child’s poor choices (even more so when it’s paired with a stern voice and facial expression).

A few examples I’ve overheard from well-meaning teachers through the years:

  • Hailee is practicing her downward-dog on her cot at naptime instead of resting flat, so we say, “I don’t like that at all, Hailee! You know better!”
  • Ian is piling mulch on the end of the slide, so we say, “I don’t like that one bit, Ian! Make a different choice!”
  • Jael gets angry at a friend for taking his toy and hits her, so we say, “I don’t like you hitting my friends, Jael! Go move your clip!”

I can imagine this phrase became so common for teachers to use in schools and daycares because it (like some other now-popular phrases, such as “no thank you”) seems like a much gentler way of saying, “no!” or “don’t do that!” I know no teacher intends to confuse their students or to cause them to feel insecure or stifled. My intention here is not to cause my fellow carers to feel insecure or stifled either, but instead to provide some points for consideration, and some ways of discouraging poor choices that are both more nourishing and more effective in our classrooms.

Using what should be an empowering communication tool as a way of scolding rule-breaking undoubtedly does confuse our children, however. It implies their choices can be evaluated as “good” or “bad” based solely on the way others react to them. (This is one way compulsive people-pleasers are unintentionally created!) It also conditions our children to be insecure about their thoughts and desires, since those thoughts and desires can cause such decidedly negative reactions, even from those who are meant to love them and keep them safe.

The inappropriate use of this tool also causes us to miss valuable opportunities to act out the true meaning of the word discipline, which is to teach:

  • Hailee’s teacher missed the opportunity to guide her in learning about the importance of resting during naptime, or about the safest way to be on a cot, and instead caused Hailee to feel that her yoga routine had to be stopped because it offended her teacher.
  • Ian’s teacher missed the opportunity to teach him about safe playground conduct and how to respect his friends’ play on the slide, and instead caused Ian to believe his creative mulch-pile location was unacceptable simply because his teacher didn’t like it.
  • Jael’s teacher missed the opportunity to show him how to express his upset feelings and get his toy back in safe and healthy ways, and instead caused Jael to feel his upset feelings about his toy being taken were unwarranted because his teacher didn’t like the way he expressed them.

Here are some examples of things teachers could have said to Hailee, Ian and Jael that are quick and to-the-point, yet also take advantage of those teachable moments:

  • “Hailee, you are coming up with ways to exercise your legs, but right now it’s time to rest so your body will have what it needs to finish the day. To be safe on your cot, you can lay on your belly or you can lay on your back.”
  • “Ian, you are having a lot of fun making that pile of mulch! I can’t let you build it on the end of the slide because your friends want to come down it, but you can make mulch piles over here or over there.”
  • “Jael, you are so angry that Kaylin took your toy!! I can’t let you hit her. Let’s take some deep breaths together, and when you feel ready, we can talk to her about giving it back to you.”

In these ways, we can continue to reserve the “I don’t like that” strategy for empowering our children to communicate their needs to their peers, and we can continue to firmly guide our children by teaching valuable skills rather than passing unconstructive judgement.

What are some ways you can help your students express their needs using the “I don’t like that” strategy? What are some of your favorite examples of kids using this strategy with success? How can you refocus your energy by teaching valuable life skills without judgment for your students? I would love to hear your goals and anecdotes in the comments section!

Today and always, my fellow Carers, I wish you well.

(And I must give a special, fun thank you to the Nameberry app which provides me with the names for my examples so I can spend my creative energy focusing on the things I want to say! 😊 )

1 thought on “#SaidAroundHere: “I don’t like that.””

  1. I’m a consultant for early childhood educators and the phrase “no thank you” as a way to tell a child “no” is spreading like a virus. I don’t even think that teachers realize just how much they use this phrase and how minimally effective it is. Now we have parents everywhere saying this. I don’t know how or where this all began but it’s very discouraging the way this has caught on. When I ask teachers why they use this term, they can’t seem to give a reason instead they justify it by saying “that’s what everyone says”, or “that’s what I was taught”. When we stop to consider that more and more of our young children, particularly those who are disadvantaged, struggle with developmental delays which often involves processing difficulties. These tend to be the children who demonstrate challenging behavior due to delays. So why throw something at them that is so confusing? No is negative and definitely has its’ place, so why are we trying to candy coat it by adding “thank you” after it? I would agree if a child is told: “no” and stops what they were doing, that responding with a “thank you” is very appropriate but when used together what really does this mean to a child? Why not tell the child what we would like to see them do so they can learn better behavior. Instead of saying “no thank you” when one child hits another child for taking his toy, why wouldn’t we say, “tell him that you’re using it…he can have it when you are finished”. Doesn’t that make more sense?


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