Lessons From the Childrearing Trenches: When It’s Not Okay to Say, “Okay?”

I have to give my mom credit for this insight. On a visit when my son was three, she pointed out that every time I gave him a direction, I ended it with “Okay?” She wondered why I would ask a question when I was not intending to give my son a choice (Sam, time to leave the playground, okay?) and noted that this might be confusing to him. Once I was aware of this dynamic, I realized that it had become a totally unconscious, reflexive response that I used constantly.Sam, time for bath, okay? Sam, time to get in the car, okay?I also began to notice that this was a pervasive phenomenon in every family I worked with. Twenty-five years later, as I visit home after home, I can confidently report that nothing has changed. We all fall prey to this pitfall. And it’s a problematic one, because it is confusing to children: they hear that they are being given a choice even though this is not their parents’ intention. When children don’t comply, it results in a lot of frustration and anger. I was at a home visit recently during which a mom kept asking her 2-year-old to, “Please take your feet off the kitchen table, okay?” After several requests the toddler turned to her mom and simply said, “No, I like them on the table.”

While it seems simple to just kick this unhelpful habit, that’s not how we operate as parents. These knee-jerk reactions tend to be pretty persistent. The only way most of us are able to make a change is to become conscious of what is driving us to act as we do—what the trigger is. Otherwise, the impulse wins out over what we know is “right” almost every time.

For me, and most parents I have talked with about this phenomenon, the root of our reaction lies in a discomfort with giving directions. It feels dictatorial and authoritarian, which is inconsistent with who we are and who we want to be as parents. We know how important it is to nurture children’s sense of agency and independence. Telling them what to do feels contrary to that goal.

The mental shift we need to make is seeing that children thrive when they know exactly what is expected of them. The same is true for adults. We feel less anxious, more in control and better able to complete tasks at work when our boss is clear about what the expectations are. This is precisely why children tend to behave better at school than at home: good teachers have no problem giving directions, and children love them all the same. Making marching orders crystal clear gives kids the information they need to make good choices. They clean up after snack so they can move on to an activity; they put the sandbox toys away so they can earn the privilege of playing with them the next time they go to the playground.

What to do?
Teach your child that a choice is something she gets to pick, while a direction is something she has to do. A choice might be offering her a cheese stick or apples slices for snack. A direction might be: “It's time to come to the table for dinner.” Labeling choices and directions helps your child understand the expectation: “Charlie, I have a direction for you: it’s time to put away the Magna-tiles and wash hands for dinner.” Or, “Laila, you have a choice: do you want to brush teeth before books or after books?” You can also call directions "jobs" as kids tend to respond very positively to this concept. It makes them feel important and competent: “Omar, your job is to put all the blocks back on the shelf.” When communicating a direction, be very careful not to start with, “can you” or end with “okay?” (“Can you get into you pjs?” Or, “It’s time to take a nap, okay?”)

You can also build choices in to the task you are directing your child to do.It’s time to set the table. Do you want to put the napkins down first or the plates?Or,It’s time to leave the playground. Do you want to hop like a bunny or take really big steps like a dinosaur to get to the car?

Click here for more on providing clear choices and expectations.