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The Power of Asking - Instead of Telling

By Jody McVittie, MD

homeworkAs a parenting educator and facilitator of classroom leadership workshops for educators I often feel like I'm straddling two worlds.  One thing these worlds have in common though is the complaint, "My children (students) don't do what they are supposed to do.  I have to tell them over and over and over again."

It reminds me of one of the very first successes I had after taking parenting classes.  After the success I had another aha: "What I was doing wasn't working and yet I was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting my child to do something different." Before I was upset that my child wouldn't change. It hadn't occurred to me that I hadn't changed either. Why did I expect a different result? I just hadn't seen it that way.

So why don't kids do what we tell them to do?  Radical thought: maybe because we are telling them.  When you tell someone what to do they don't have to think.  They can listen or not listen - but then it goes away. Your daughter doesn't have to think about or notice the mess, or her unfinished homework, or the chore she didn't do or remember to write a thank you note.  Your student doesn't need to pay attention how they are walking (running) or standing in line because if they make a mistake you'll remind them to fix it. We are doing the noticing (and reminding) for them.  In fact, when we adults do all the noticing and telling their brains don't have to engage much at all!  What a life!

Except of course, that we nag and get resentful.  That isn't much fun for us. (They just tune us out - which makes us even more resentful.)

Here is the good news.  When we change what we do, our children and students will (slowly) change what they do. When you ask, or notice and ask your child's (student's) brain has to engage to respond; its gears begin to move. Not only that, the human being in that body begins to notice and think...two very important functions to be responsible (response-able) and to be successful in school and life.

Instead of, "It is time to do your homework," try, "I'm noticing that you haven't done your homework and there is only one hour until bedtime, what is your plan?

Girl-dishesInstead of, "Put your dishes in the dishwasher," try "What did we decide would happen when you are done eating?"

Instead of, "Before you go to Katie's house you need to get your chores done," try, "Yes you can go to Katie's but there are a few things that need to be done first.  Do you remember what they are? (Then listen and make sure that the two of you agree on the list.)

When we practice asking instead of telling we are doing more than teaching responsibility.  We also are indicating as sense of faith and trust in our child that they can see and solve the problem.  And we build connection, trust and respect.

Photo Credit: Bindaas Madhavi

Posted on March 3, 2012 by Jody McVittie, MD

Jody McVittie is the co-founder and executive director of Sound Discipline, a Seattle-based nonprofit dedicated to teaching people to do the right thing--even when no one is looking. Sound Discipline works with local schools, educators, youth outreach programs, and parenting educators to teach tools we all can use to foster dignity, respect and equity in our communities.   She is the mother of 3 young adults who have been some of her best teachers.  Though she no longer actively practices family medicine, she sees the work we all do to create better communities as the basis for good public health. Follow her blog for parents or newsletters for educators.

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Permalink   Comments (3)   Send to a Friend

Tags: *Parent Engagement at Home , Character Development, Communicating, Critical Thinking, Positive Discipline

Posted March 6, 2012 by Jody
Hi Brit,
I'm guessing that tone of voice would make all the difference. Many kids "receive" telling as more aggressive than asking - as long as asking is done with the idea that you have faith in the child to solve the problem on their own - and are respectful about it. I'm curious about your experience. I've watched it work like magic. 

Posted March 6, 2012 by Brit
I don't know it sounds good but at the same time, it sounds a little passive aggressive/condescending. 

Posted March 3, 2012 by rick ackerly
Good one, Jody. Nice. 


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