Have you ever noticed that as soon as you tell your child not to do something, that is exactly what they then do.  You say: “Don’t fall in” and the next thing you hear is ‘splash!!’’

You say: “Don’t drop it” and the next thing you hear is ‘smash!!’
You say: “Don’t ruin your sister’s creation” and the temptation is apparently too much to bear.

It works for adults, too.  You are told: “Don’t worry”.  What do you do? Worry. You’re booking an appointment and say: ‘Any day but the 9th’.  What happens?  You get offered 11 am on the 9th.


Why does this happen? In short, in order to process the negative (e.g. don’t fall), we have to access meaning through a mental image of the positive (fall).   The power of imagination is immense.  Once the mind has seen it, the body is likely to follow.

The trick is to keep the image of the child falling from the bike in the mind of the parent, and the image of the child staying on the bike in the mind of the child.

So, what, if anything, should we say to the child who is wobbling on the bike?  Something like ‘Keep it steady’.  And to the child by the pond: ‘Stay dry’ or ‘Watch out for the slippery rocks’.  The student who has a harrowing oral exam needs the positive ‘Stay calm’, or ‘It’ll be fine’.  The player who desperately wants to win a match needs to be told ‘Focus on the ball’ or ‘Keep playing smart’ rather than being reminded of all the things that could go wrong.  And you’ll get the appointment date you want more easily if you say ‘Any time on the 8th or the 10th would be fine’.