Do They Really Have A Choice? How to Communicate Clearly with Kids

guest post by Claire Battersby

We know children copy what we say, so we want to communicate respectfully, right?

So we say things like

“It’s bedtime, OK?”

“Do you want to brush your teeth?”

Many of us feel that it sounds kinder to add an “OK?” at the end of a request, or to ask if kids want to do the next action we have planned. But what if this just causes more frustration and confusion?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of asking children questions and giving choices (even to babies and toddlers). Good decision-making skills develop from practising making decisions. Allowing children to make small decisions early on prepares them for making bigger decisions when they are older. And having their opinions respected helps children feel their thoughts and feelings matter.

What If We Don’t Like Their Answer?

However, when we don’t like the answer they give, everyone can be left feeling frustrated. We may feel they are being uncooperative when they respond to our question with “no.” And when we say, “well you’ve got to do it anyway” it seldom goes smoothly. It’s similar to telling the child they made the wrong choice, which can leave children feeling shamed and powerless.

Children feel anxious, confused and unsettled when we take their choices back. If done regularly, the child may create a habit of trying to guess what it is you really want to hear. And this effort at pleasing can lead to dangerous choices in the face of peer pressure when they are older.

We all know children need guidance (even they know it, deep down). And our ability to communicate clearly with them can not only prevent many issues, but it also models good communication skills. It’s helpful to quickly ask ourselves these questions before making requests.

Reflect Before Requesting

  1. What is the priority in this moment?
  2. Is it urgent?
  3. How flexible am I right now?

What options work?

There are various factors to consider when deciding on how to offer children choices, including how tired, hungry and emotionally stable everyone involved feels. It takes just a moment to assess the situation, and can save everyone a lot of trouble and ill feelings.    

When we ask a question we need to be prepared for the child’s answer, whatever it is. Are we flexible about the outcome? If not then we need to rephrase the request. I have become careful of what, how and when I ask children.

Examples of Respectful Requests

Flexible Questions

  • “What would you like for snack?”
  • “Are you ready to go home?”

Closed Options

  • “Which story would you like before bed?”
  • “Would you like to get dressed or eat breakfast first?”

Instructions

  • “Let’s brush your teeth now.”
  • “It’s time to go to the park.”

A Work in Progress

I’m still working on communicating clearly and respectfully with the children I care for. The other day I caught myself putting a questioning “OK?” at the end of a safety instruction to a toddler. I quickly clarified my meaning before she had a chance to respond. “OK meant, do you understand what I just said?”. Her reply was “no” with a puzzled look on her face. I explained it a different way and ended by saying “Understand?” which she agreed.    

If we catch ourselves asking a child a question we wish we hadn’t, we can teach the art of negotiation. Let’s go back to the example questions at the beginning about bedtime. For example, lots of children would respond to the questions with “NO!” or “I’m playing/watching TV”. I would reply: “I see you’re not ready, so at the end of the TV show or when the timer goes off it’s time to get ready for bed. As soon as that time approaches I would turn off the timer or TV and let them choose between 2 or 3 specific tasks.

Experiment with different ways of expressing respectful requests in various situations with your children.

What are your thoughts on using questions in this context? What works for you? What do you find a challenge? Let us know in the comment section below.

Claire Battersby is an experienced nanny and child advocate on a journey from being reactive and controlling towards children to being respectful and calm. She is fascinated to learn about how children react to the way adults treat them, and grateful for how much kids teach her about herself, themselves, and life in general. Both Claire and Patricia Hope share their insights on Empowering Childhood.  Sign up HERE for notifications on their webinars, articles and more, and stay in the loop with Empowering Childhood on Facebook.

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