Living Arts Weekly: The Power of “You May”

September 10, 2023

One of the more challenging parts of parenting is finding cooperation in all that we need our young children to do. It becomes especially challenging when they develop their own ideas and agendas about what they would rather be doing in a particular moment, and thus, when we require of them to change plans, they may react with very strong emotions. The silver lining of this inevitable reality is that the resistance posed by our dear child is evidence that they are becoming their own person. We want that, but we also want them to learn how to cooperate. In fact, cooperation is imperative if they are going to form healthy relationships and grow into a sense of responsibility.  While knowing this widens our perspective, and perhaps strengthens our patience, it doesn’t necessarily make the task easier. How does one go about getting their child to cooperate with, say putting on shoes to get out the door? Or, cleaning up crayons and paper to eat dinner at the table?  Well, there are a number of approaches one might take. Working upon the foundation of a rhythm with predictable transitions, engaging the imagination, and making it a game are a few examples; but one of our most important practices is to pay attention to our language in these situations.

Take my first example, a mom who needs her son to put on his shoes so they can leave the house. She begins with one of many iterations of the same request- “Can you put on your shoes, please?” or, “Would you like to put on your shoes so we can leave?” or even, “Will you put on your shoes for mommy?”  What her child is hearing here is a choice- “Would you be willing to stop what you are doing to do what I want you to do now?” – though what she really means is, “I need you to put on your shoes so that we may leave.”  What ensues is typically resistance, contention, or all out tantrums.

Why do parents so often frame a command within a question? There could be a lot of reasons, but primarily the response I get when I pose this question is that they feel that it is nicer. Is it really, though? As adults we have difficulty stopping our own activity to attend to someone else’s desires/needs, even when we can understand why its necessary. Our children don’t yet have the capacity to see the larger picture that we hold, they just know that someone else is giving them a choice to stop or not. So why would it be nicer to give them a choice they don’t really have?

A command expressed in a statement does not have to be, or feel, harsh. It can, in fact, be very warm and instill a sense of security. What we at LifeWays suggest in place of these requests is, “You may.”  “You may put on your shoes so that we can leave the house.” “You may clean up your crayons and paper so that we can set the table for dinner together.”  And then, holding to the statement, we move along. “Here are your shoes. You may put them on while I get our library bag.”  “Here is the basket for your crayons. You may start with them, while I stack the paper.”  There are many ways to support the transition, such as those mentioned above, as well as building in time to wait when they should be able to do the task alone. When this language is used frequently and children feel the security it brings, there is far less resistance.

Why does this statement render such different results? Well, there are a few different reasons. First, it emphasizes that, as their parent, you are confident in their capability to do it. That fact can even be expounded upon. “I remember when you were working so hard to put on your own shoes, but now you can do it so easily!”

Second, it expresses that, as their parent, you are in charge and taking care of them. And for good reason- children are not ready to be in charge of everything, nor would they want to be. Unconsciously, they know they are not capable yet, and that is why it causes distress to have too many choices, too many moments when they are inadvertently put in charge. Inviting your young child with assuredness to participate in life the way that you need them to (because you hold a larger picture of your family’s well being) provides them with a sense of security.

A concern I held early on in motherhood has been echoed back to me through many parents I have worked with since then- the concern that asserting my authority (being in charge) would dampen my child’s spirit, also known as their will. That might be true if I didn’t change the way I parent in response to my child’s growth, but under the age of seven, knowing that a parent is in charge is crucial support to a child’s growing will. There is so much of their will yet to take shape; so much self-awareness to achieve and the capability to use their will productively. Standing in our authority and expressing it through our language forms a solid foundation of consistency and upholds appropriate boundaries for the will of the child to unfold within naturally. It also implicitly communicates to our children that they are capable of growing into being their own authority; whereas asking “Can you…,” “Would you like to….” models indecisiveness.  In using statements like, “You may…” we are warm in heart, clear of mind, and resolved in our own will. So much of what we wish for them to grow into.