A parent made a statement about being torn over the use of the question, "Okay?" when requesting something from her autistic son. Her reasoning was that she didn't want to parent so strictly. I get that. Saying "Okay?" seems to soften things. It makes demands seem friendlier. Unfortunately, it's confusing and teaches kids the wrong lesson. It's a habit. And it's a hard habit to break. And before I write about it, I want to say...I do it. When I notice I'm doing it I stop. I'm not saying you're a bad parent if you do it too. I'm just saying you'd be better if you didn't; I'd be better if I didn't.
The beauty of "Okay?" is that its sloppiness allows me to be a lazy parent, its confusing permissive vagueness complicit in my parental languor. Picture me sitting on the couch, for example, a beer in one hand, the remote in the other. Lily walks past holding her coat in her hand.
"Lily, put your coat on the hook, okay?" I ask, sipping my beer indifferently.
"Meh...alright," I sigh in response.
At least I'm not sending mixed messages. She was given a choice and she chose "No." If that's what you're trying to teach your children, then using "Okay?" is okay. Okay?
Because by introducing the question "Okay?" at the end of a demand, we are unwittingly giving our children a choice we may not have intended. What if the answer to your question "Okay?" is "No." What's your next step? Ignore it? Argue it? Overrule it? By giving your child a choice and then overruling it you are succeeding only in confusing the kid, and teaching him/her that there really is no choice. No = Yes.
One way to fix this is to stop placing question marks on our expectations for our children. The other, harder way, is to learn not to put demands on our kids that don't really matter, limiting our demands to those that count.
We're not perfect about this, but one thing that we periodically focus on as Lily's parents (that apply to Emma as well, but probably we never would have noticed) is making demands count, because as parents we always need to be ready for the right counter-measure to our kids' refusal to do something we want them to do. Like parental chess masters, we have to do a better job of planning our moves in advance.
- "Lily, would you please put your coat on the hook?" This is a question. If the answer is no, what do you do? Overrule?
- "Lily, please put your coat on the hook, okay?" This is a question too, and a bit of a wishy-washy one at that. Do you want her to put her coat on the hook? Do you not? Same issue if the answer is no.
- "Lily, please put your coat on the hook." This is a demand. It's a polite demand, but it's a demand. There is no built in option or question. It is clear. And refusal means a fight.
Is it important? Certainly if part of your child's school ritual is learning to place his/her belongings in a cubby or on a hook each day, then reinforcing that at home is also important. I'm prepared to enforce that demand if Lily is reluctant to comply. I'm prepared to argue, punish, etc.
What we as parents have to be careful of is enforcing the demands that we really don't care about. Because when it's no longer a choice or option, what happens when your son or daughter rebels against it? Now you're essentially backed into a corner. Maybe you even realize that it's a stupid request, but you've made it. Backing down sends the signal, "It's okay to ignore parents' demands." How important is your victory in the subsequent battle of wills? If you cave, then she learned that she can get her way if she battles back hard enough. If you win, but at the expense of a long battle and an emotionally strung out kid, was it worth it?
Where I'm most guilty of this is at the dinner table. Typically the corner I back myself into is the one where I require Lily to take "one more bite" before she can be done. How important is that last bite? Why am I fighting so hard for it? What if she won't eat it? What if she gags on it or spits it out? Has she eaten enough? Is she full? What purpose does "one more bite" serve? I need to work on that.
Certainly any demand a parent places on a child can be appropriately argued against if the child has a compelling and logical reason for noncompliance. But where kids with limited communication are concerned, specifically those who best succeed when given clear, logical, and literal instruction, our attention to the importance of our clear instruction, as well as the differentiation between what is necessary and what is optional becomes even more important.
Consider eliminating "Okay?" from your demands, and consider too how you communicate questions and demands to your children. Ask yourself these questions before deciding how you want to phrase yourself.
- Are you asking or are you telling?
- If you're asking, what if the answer is no?
- If you're demanding, is it worth a fight?