The Two Words I Never Say To My Kids

We’re entering a tough phase in our house.

It’s this place where some of my children (or more specifically, my oldest child) have become old enough to warrant the expectations of a big kid, but my younger kids are still milking all the perks that come with being “too little” for most acts of true responsibility.

I think this is a real phase. Tell me it’s a real phase and not just a parenting paradox that I’ve conjured up to legitimatize this particular moment in time… We’re going to go with “it’s a real thing”.

A few nights ago, as I was cleaning up our dessert of Strawberries with Magic Dust (which I realize now, sounds like an illicit street drug sprinkled over a kid-friendly fruit, but I didn’t make that connection until after I rolled out the name for my world famous Stevia sprinkled over cut up berries after dinner treat), I barked some orders to clean up the pillow pile that my sons had built betwixt their twin beds.

“Can you guys start cleaning up, please?”

This is nothing new. If you create the pillow pile (aka every linen, pillow, bean bag in our house, stacked a mile high for jumping into) you must clean up said pillow pile. However, on this particular night – whether it was due to extreme end-of-the-weekend blues or pure exhaustion from an intense indoor football game with their dad, the boys weren’t having it.

We don’t want to!

Will you help us?

We’re going to use it again tomorrow!

And while my internal dialogue wanted to respond with a resounding “I don’t care!” and “Definitely not!” and “No big deal! Just build another one! I don’t think you’ll need CAD to replicate this homage to the trash monster from Fraggle Rock.” – instead I paused.

Because I realized that I was the one in the wrong. This one was on me. I had used the two words my husband and I had banned from our parenting lexicon long ago.

“Can you…”

I had made the grave parenting error of asking my children if, in this particular moment, they were capable of helping out. I had presented a non-negotiable as a question, which they dutifully answered – just not in the way I wanted.

Typically, in our house, when we’re requesting that our children complete a task, it goes something like this:

“Honey, I need you to help clear the table, please.”

“But, I need to go finish my Lego Batman fortress with attached drawbridge and secret entrance to the Batcave so that Batman can defeat Joker and Penguin and save Gotham City from their evil weapons!”

“Cool. Okay, well I need you to help clear the table first. So do you want to clear the plates or the cups?”

Extremely long pause. One eye roll. One alllllmost foot stomp. Two glances down at sneakers. Hands inserted into pockets.

“Cups.”

“Okay, let’s work together to clear the table and then you can go finish your Lego Batman fortress with attached drawbridge and secret entrance to the Batcave so that Batman can defeat Joker and Penguin and save Gotham City from their evil weapons!”

If you’re thinking that this conversation reads like a special education strategy/attachment parenting exercise, you’re right! What’s that they say about “parenting what you know” – or is that “writing what you know?”

Anyway, the reason we choose to use this technique in our home is simple. When you present your children with safe choices, they learn the concept of choice-making, whilst still obeying the King and Queen of the castle. When I give my kids choices, it offers them the freedom to maintain some level of autonomy, yet requires them to live within the guidelines set forth by the people that run the joint.

Instead of asking them, “Can you…” – we offer: “You can…” and present them with two, equally acceptable outcomes. This way, no one walks away from the scenario feeling like they’ve lost something. Sure, we get push back, temper tantrums and plenty of elongated vowels, but more often than not, we can navigate our way through the quagmire with minimal pushback.

Because we’ve been doing this for a while, our kids know that my husband and I will never present them with a set of choices that we don’t believe are in their best interest and this helps lay the foundation for trusting our judgement down the line when, during those pesky teenaged years, we’re talking about safe choices to make at a party. Are there any safe choices to make at a high school party? I just finished watching 13 Reasons Why and I’m now very seriously considering not educating my children beyond the 8th grade.

Now, I don’t have any longitudinal data to support this theory (although Grace Based Parenting by Tim Keller offers some amazing insight on this subject), but it stands to reason that if early on, we help our children feel empowered to make safe choices, endorsed by their parents, this will be a skill that carries over into young adulthood and beyond.

Of course, this empowered choice-making must be cultivated in an environment of unconditional love, support and enthusiastic Lego building, but that probably goes without saying.


20 Comments

  1. Great read! So many of those conversations you have in your house we have in ours too!

  2. I really learn something new today. Although with my 7 yrs old girl I hardly have that problem as she is really quite obedient and in fact so excited when she got the task to do (so far). But I will remember this..never say “Can you”.
    Thanks a lot for sharing this.

  3. This is a very sound technique, and I have used it myself when babysitting, because as you rightly observe, when given a choice, kids will often respond with something out of our expecations (no, I can’t do that chore) lol! Insightful, thanks.

    • hahaha oh yeah totally! If right now, someone said, “Can you take that bath towel out of your hair and run a comb through it?” My answer would definitely, be “Nope! I can’t!”

  4. This is a technique I’ve used myself, and I know it works! When you give kids too much leeway in a choice, they will often pick the option you don’t want them to…lol! Good insight into pschology.

    • Good point! I definitely have to be careful to choose two “acceptable” choices 😉

  5. I actually love this! It’s brilliant! I think kids will definitely take that as a question and run with it, rather than seeing it as a demand or something they need to do. I am going to keep this in mind!

    • Thank you so much Steph! I really appreciate that. I hope it works for you 🙂

  6. Love it! Great parenting. My husband and I follow the same conversation pattern. Do you want to brush your teeth before your bath or after? Either way you will be doing both and they will happen now. 🙂

    • That’s so awesome. I love that you guys are already doing this 🙂 Makes me feel like I’m on the right track!

  7. Such a great idea! I just told my husband this. We only have a six month old but we have been discussing things that we shouldn’t and should say instead. A big thing a friend recommended is instead of calling things “bad words” or things like that, say they’re adult words, becaushe you will surely slip up on occasion . Or even the words like crap, can become adult words. They also apply this principle to “adult drinks”.

  8. I try and follow this as well because as soon as I say “can you” it becomes a battle.

  9. I read this the other day but I’m just now getting around to commenting. I LOVE this. I’m totally going to adopt this as a “thing” in our house. No more “can you.” Nope.

  10. Yes! I love this post. I have an almost 3 year old and learned recently that “can you” is most definitely not the way to go! Giving options has helped a lot. Thanks for sharing this!

    • Thank you Suzanne! Using “Can you…” with my 3 year old is definitely a battle starter as well!!

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