Question or command?

Sarah Fitz-Claridge

From the archives: The original post was posted on 23rd November, 2001

A poster wrote:

Parent A thinks both parents should make a point of asking child questions instead of issuing commands. (“Do you want to get dressed? Would you like to go to the park?” Instead of “Get dressed, it’s time to go to the park.”) Parent B thinks this is silly, a waste of time, and condescending to boot, since parents often issue such commands to each other, and child is capable of responding to the command with “No, I don’t want to get dressed.”

What do you think?

I personally dislike both of those forms of words.

First, is it time to go to the park? What if the child disagrees with the park theory? Is the “Get dressed, it’s time to go to the park” parent open to the idea that the “it’s time to go to the park” theory may be a mistake? Is that parent open to finding a  solution in the event that the child disagrees? If so, maybe a different form of words might be better.

OTOH, does the “Do you want to get dressed? Would you like to go to the park?” parent want to go to the park or not? Does this parent have a view, or is it the case that he or she has no park theory? If this parent does have a preference, why not express it more clearly? Why not share it with the child?

I hated it when adults used to ask me a question which was a disguised command. Not that I am suggesting that there is any element of that here. I am assuming that that is not the case, this being the Taking Children Seriously List rather than the Treating Children Shittily List. So the issues here are:

  • Who has what theory? What it the substance
  • How is the theory held? Does it seem entrenched or not? (Is there something untoward happening?) 
  • How best can the theories be expressed? Does the form of expression obscure the substance or elucidate it? 
  • Is everyone involved confident that any disagreement will be resolved such that everyone wholeheartedly agrees, or not? 

In general, the substance matters and the form doesn’t. It’s no good getting the form right if the substance is all wrong. Is there in fact coercion happening or not? Is the parent trying to force an outcome, or not? Many books aimed at parents harp on about “active listening” and particular forms of words to use with children, but remember that that is about manipulating children rather than finding real solutions to problems. What Taking Children Seriously families are trying to do is to solve problems in ways that everyone involved prefers. We’re interested in the substance not the form.

Having said that, some of what people take to be the mere form is actually substance. For example, a cold ‘rational’ statement about going to the park can totally fail to express the vast majority of the theory’s actual content. This particularly matters when young children are involved, because they may be less likely to guess the unstated content of the theory. And it is not necessarily enough to state placidly that going to the park would be “fun”, if what you have in mind is that it could be a thrilling adventure and deeply connecting with those you love most in the entire world. Especially with young children, but really, with everyone, it is a mistake not to express the theory including inexplicitly through your way of being (cartwheels? Skipping? Jumping up and down with excitement?!) in addition to the mere words. It would be a terrible mistake to think that only the words are the substance. The words are the mere tip of the iceberg of the substance.

Some people say, “Come on, let’s go to the park!” or “Hurry up! I want to go to the park!” One can’t judge whether or not that is coercive or not by looking at the form of words. It might well be in one case, but it would not be in another. If everyone is aware that even theories held very strongly are still open to criticism in the family, then family members can express their theories strongly and it not be coercive. However, it is quite possible that on occasion a person might be mistaken in thinking that the way he or she expressed a theory was not coercive. So it is worth asking yourselves whether it could be that one person is merely going along with something instead of genuinely agreeing. If so, then it is worth thinking about whether or not the form of expression is in itself a problem. It is worth being aware of this possibility, but in most cases, the problem will be that there is actually some (inadvertent, in many cases) coercion happening in substance.

But the answer to the potential problem of sharing how strongly one holds a given theory is not to avoid expressing the theory. Turning a theory into a question can be dishonest (and coercive) if one actually holds the theory strongly. It is not good to present to one’s children a cardboard cut-out of oneself instead of one’s real self. That should not, of course, be taken to mean that it is perfectly great to spew pain and anger over one’s children in the name of “honesty” or “keeping it real”, as Americans seem to say. There is honesty – and there is rubbing the child’s nose down the wall in it. The latter is likely to hurt.

So instead, one thing to do is to express one’s theories and preferences clearly, while also making it clear that if there is the slightest disagreement, one wants to find a solution. We are trying to cultivate an atmosphere in which everyone feels safe and free to criticise and disagree and no one fears having to self-sacrifice – and no one’s wishes are in fact sacrificed. This is not easy, and actually it is not something one can create by an act of will. To do that, be sensitive to one another’s wishes (but don’t poke about in one another’s minds – that is coercive in itself) and find real solutions.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2001, ‘Question or command?’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/question-or-command/