Monday, August 29, 2011

The Language Of Command

I recognized them as the nice family from our building, their son, who looks to be approaching 3, was straddling one of those wooden, peddle-less bikes a lot of the kids are starting out on these days. He was in the midst of a mini-tantrum, stamping his feet, while emitting a whine-cry of frustration. His father was kneeling beside him. As I passed I heard the dad say, in the gentlest, most loving voice imaginable, "If you keep acting like this you won't be able to ride your bike for a whole hour. And that's a long time."


Several weeks ago I was taking a recreational stroll through Pike Place Public Market, the heart and soul of Seattle. A boy, probably around 8, and his mother were having one of those heatless debates:

Boy (excitedly): "I want to go down that side."

Mom (jovially): "Oh, you don't want to go down that side. Let's go down this side. What do you want to see over there anyway?"

Boy (barely audible): "That side."

By then she had taken his hand and it was over.


Just down at the end my street there's a newish park at the south end of Lake Union where I often walk my dogs. During the summer, a length of the sidewalk emits fountains of water, arches under which children in bathing suits run on hot days. Every time I'm there, I hear parents saying to timid children, "Go under it!" "Get in it." "Don't be afraid."


These are all just snippets overheard, out of context, and I don't know anything about the lives that lead up to those moments. We all speak with our loved ones unconsciously at times, maybe most of the time, in moments of stress or other distraction for sure, when our brains are working on things other than the relationship in which we're presently engaged. It's impossible to always be in the moment, especially as a parent, but oh if we could only really hear ourselves speaking from the perspective of a disengaged passerby, how much we'd learn about ourselves and our relationships. So much more, I think, or at least so much different, than what we know about ourselves when we are steadfastly present and aware of our every word.

I think, for many of us, the idea that the adult is "the boss" is such a deeply rooted concept that we act as if it is an unquestioned truth. And sometimes, I suppose, we are "the boss," like when we need to take charge in urgent moments where safety is concerned. Stop! Don't go in the street! That kind of thing. But too often we confuse being responsible for someone with being their superior, and that pre-supposition of command crops up in moments when there's really no point, like a bad habit.

It would never occur to us, for instance, to threaten to punish an adult for expressing an emotion like frustration in a non-violent way. In fact, I'd say stamping your feet and crying is a pretty straight-forward way to feel it, release it, then put it behind you. How much better than the adult-approved method of smiling through gritted teeth. When we threaten punishment for expressing an emotion, I think what we are really saying is, I'm embarrassed by the way you're acting. I fear it reflects poorly on me as a parent. That would be an inappropriate, incomprehensible load to lay on a child, so instead we threaten them even if we don't really mean it.

(As Lao Tzu puts it, "Let your feelings flourish and get on with your life of doing." Kids are often masters of that, if we can just let them go. Seriously, if someone has to be the boss about emotions, I'm all for playing second fiddle. We don't know more about emotions than children simply by virtue of being adults: in fact, I've learned just about everything I know about emotions from working with kids.)

And how about the idea that we get to tell children how they feel or what they really want? "You don't want to go down that side," "Oh, you're not hurt," "You don't really want that." Adding the question, "Do you?" to the end of it doesn't help. Believe me, the boy really did want to go down "that side," it does really hurt, and yes, she genuinely wants that. What we are really saying, is "I don't want to go down that side, "I wish that didn't hurt," "I don't want to give you that." What children hear is, "I don't believe you," and "I'm the grown-up, ergo, I know better." The language of command teaches children to distrust their own understanding, even of their own feelings.

I've written before about the knee-jerk use of directional statements: "Sit here," "Put that away," "Go over there." These too, clearly come from the habit of command. So ingrained is this in many of us that we direct, "Go under it!" when what we mean is, "It looks like it would be fun to go under it." We dictate, "Don't be afraid," when what we mean is, "I know you're afraid."

Perhaps as adults we've come to understand the code, to know that when our loved ones say, "Come here!" they aren't really bossing us, but rather just taking a short cut around saying, "I would like you to come over here," although I suspect most of us still feel a flash of resentment each time someone uses the language of command with us. Children, however, only hear that they are being told what to do, how to feel, and even that they might be punished for what is, after all, their own truth.

I have no expectation for you or for me that we will be able to be utterly free of this mind-set. It's a very powerful one, this idea that adults are the boss, a notion that most people will never question, let alone examine. And even those of us who are fully aware, still, in unguarded moments, often fall into the language habits of command, not just with our children, but with our spouses, friends and colleagues. It's a pervasive thing. If we work on it, however, if we're reflective and conscious, our children won't be as likely to develop the habit as they become adults.

That's, at least, the plan.

Update: I've written a follow-up to this post entitled "Spoiled Brats" which goes into more specific details and answers some questions not addressed here.

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LeeanneA said...

I catch myself in moments like this and I think to myself - 'Wow I just sounded like a drill sergeant' and that is not the person I want to be. So I indeed have to be aware of the words I use at all times. Having an autistic son is the main reason I have to watch how I say things - because a simple request may turn into a day long tantrum. Therefore the children in my school - and others I deal with on a daily basis are treated with respect by the words I choose to use during our interactions.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tom. Though I agree almost always with your posts, I have trouble agreeing with this one. I strongly feel children want a confident guide to set boundaries for them. And, yes, a "boss," does describe the position harshly, but one can be a loving, considerate boss who lets their children expressly their feelings and lets them take the lead as long as its safe. Bosses like this do exist in the workforce and as parents. I try not to stifle my child's creative thinking or emotional releases, but I do use time-out when he runs near streets or throws things that could potentially hurt someone or if he's had several "emotional outburts" in a row despite being well-fed and well-rested. He's only two but I know he understands time-out and he uses it to breathe and calm down. I stand right there with him. I never put him in his room for time-out. But "punishing" him does make me the boss of him; but I believe he feels safe knowing that there a rules and boundaries in this huge world, and he knows I love him unconditionally. So what's so bad with being a boss, as long as you remember what your "employee" is capable of, given his age?

Teacher Tom said...

@Anonymous . . . I hope you reconsider your position on punishment. Every study ever done on the punishment has found that it only works under two conditions: 1) while the punisher is present, or 2) if the punishment is overwhelming and debilitating. Punishment takes the focus off of the behavior and puts it on avoiding punishment or resentment of the punisher.

Here is a recent post I wrote on it:

But please do your own research. I've never been able to find a scientific study that demonstrates that it works to "teach" anything you want your child to learn. You will find that the science on the effects of punishment, especially on very young children, is quite clear.

Anonymous said...

Hi Teacher Tom:
I just wanted to let you know that I enjoy reading your insightful posts and appreciate your honesty. Although I find myself not always agreeing with you or questioning how you arrived at your conclusion I have found that it is beneficial to expose ourselves to other ways of thinking. You never know when an idea will strike you as great even if you had always thought otherwise.

I am not by any means a perfect parent, just as you are not a perfect teacher, but I strive every day to do the best I can to raise a thoughtful, intelligent, considerate and gentle daughter. My goal is for her to be a successful adult - at least in her own eyes.

Thank you for your thougts and keep them coming - some days they challenge me and some days they provide confirmation - both of which are a good thing.

kirstie said...

I love the Lao Tzu quote

Believing that I can change how another person feels is a trap that I have to avoid daily - with grown ups as well as children. I am as likely to try to persuade my husband that he had a lovely commute from work and has no reason to feel grouchy when he walks through the door, as I am to persuade my child that he really, really is enthusiastic about going to the library.

In both cases, the answer is to let them have their feelings, sympathise, and concentrate on what needs to be done (make food, find the overdue library books etc) It is so tempting to get hooked into an argument. The difference between my son and my husband is that my husband and I are equals, but I have enough power over my son (control of his toys, television etc.) to get my way on some really pointless arguments.

The Knitty Gritty Homestead said...

This touches a nerve with so many people. Intuitively, I know that what you say is right. Two books have really changed my perspective/awareness of how I speak to my children: "Unconditional Parenting" by Alfie Kohn (which supports your comments to "anonymous" re. the inefficacy of punishment), and "Parenting from the Inside Out" by Siegel and Hartzell. I think people put more research into purchasing a car or a phone than into parenting. We all think we know what to do, but cringe when we hear our parents' voices coming out of our mouths. My husband and I are in a place now where we can "call" each other on certain parenting behaviours that don't really make sense, and devalue what our children are feeling. We're coming to realise that what really upsets us about tantrums is the LACK OF CONTROL that we have. So many parenting choices are made based on controlling children's natural (and valid!) reactions (overreactions from our adult perspective, but of vital importance in their young worlds)...
Anyway, great post. I can't believe I've just found your blog now. I have lots of catching up to do, and am enjoying every minute.

Anonymous said...

Dear Tom,

Thanks for your quick reply re. the inefficiency of punishment. I did read the post you recommended reg. natural consequences. It did not change my mind on the matter (just as the other commentators confirmed it wouldn't) but I appreciate you taking the time to reply to me. You're an amazing voice amongst so many parenting blogs. Keep the posts coming!

Unknown said...

I love how you encourage parents/teachers to think of incorporating more natural consequences. What I believe works better than any natural consequence or punishment is meeting the needs of a child, and you so clearly do that in your school by providing lots of opportunity for play, creative thinking, problem solving, and parental support. When I am having the most problems with my daughter, it's usually because one of her needs are not being met. If I work to meet that need, the negative behavior dissipates over time.

Sarah MacLaughlin said...

But one CAN be an authority without being a "boss!" Great post. Thank you for your great work.

Jeanne Zuech said...

Hmmm, Tom. I will be thinking on this one for quite some time. Ironically, I will also be thinking about it in my role as a teacher of new teachers. For now, I will say to you - in my most commanding voice - Have A Nice Day! :)

Lynn said...

Great post Tom. I agree.

Tabatha said...

Tom, Teacher Tom.
I found your blog through pinterest....sort of. I was creeping on another teacher's blog (can it be creeping, when it's willingly on the internet?) and she linked your blog, and over my lunch break I combed through so many of your posts!
First and foremost, I am thrilled to see that there IS a man preschool teacher in this world!
I know maybe one other. So, applause for you! Children at this young of an age need more strong, male role-models in their lives.
Secondly, I am absolutely in love with the creative way you run your classroom. I strive to do things that way, as well. It's hard when not everyone is on board -- but nice to see it is working for you!
And finally, after reading this post, it reminded me of a Conscious Discipline workshop I went to (I'm a HUGE fan of Conscious Discipline). The presenter told us this story of a teacher who regulated her children with a "behavior plan" of sorts. She said, "If you're good and don't throw a fit every day this week, I'm going to bring in all the stuff I didn't sell at my garage sale, and let you pick a 'prize!'" Ha.
She went on to tell us that wasn't rewarding children for having appropriate emotional reactions, it was rewarding them for not having any feelings at all! Of course it's appropriate to get upset. Conflict is our friend. How else will our students learn? Feelings are important and should be validated. Thanks for the post!

Kristin@SenseofWonder said...

Hi Tom,
Just wanted to share a story with you. I was at a training. All of us teachers were sitting in our seats chatting waiting for the training to start. The facilitator walks in to the room and with out saying a word grabs one of us and yanks her out of her seat by the arm and drags her across the room and sits her down in another chair, then she begins her training. She turned and asked the woman how she felt. Well obviously she felt frustrated, confused, insulted, how else. But how many in that room had done the same thing to a child? I have never forgotten that training and I always *try* to make sure that I treat all children with respect.
Thank you for another great post!

Beansprouts said...

It's really amazing how easily these statements roll off the tongues especially of those who don't work with children and have to constantly monitor what comes out of their mouth. I'm grateful to have had mentors that modeled self-reflection and forced me to look deeply at how my language impacts a child's self- and world-view.

Thanks again, Tom for another amazing reflection.

Cave Momma said...

I find I have this struggle a lot. My daughter expresses everything physically and I struggle with helping her find the best way to express her anger and frustration without being hurtful. Thank you for some amazing words and thoughts, I will remember it the next time something comes up.

amy said...

There's a lot I agree with here, but it troubles me so much that you began the post by repeating overheard snippets from strangers' lives. Even though you admit you don't know the context, there you are, putting it on the Internet and judging it anyway. Surely there was another way for you to make your point without starting it by exposing and judging people you don't even know. If there's one thing I can say about parenting--especially being a mother, rather than a father--out in public, it's that we're judged by strangers all the time. It's not helpful.

Solomon said...

I've been a lurker here for a while. Few posts have itched and bothered me from you as much as this one. After much thought, the crux of it lies with the automatically negative use of "boss" or "superior." I feel this is more telling of your negative experience with bosses. A great boss doesn't seek this blind compliance you dislike any more than a great teacher or a great parent would.

allie said...

I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this, especially in the position I am in now - in a new setting, ettin to know children. It is a golden opportunity for me to work with the children to establish the community, rather than me deciding "how it's gonna be" and then relaying that information to the children by telling them what to do. There has to be a relationship of mutual respect, I think, and adults are typically the ones who fall short on that.

It would be very easy for me to finish my coffee, go to the school, and tell everyone what to do - we'd get into a routine and have structure in no time. But it shouldn't be about my agenda.



Teacher Tom said...

@Solomon . . . I completely agree with you. In fact, that's the entire point of this post -- there are better ways to do things than to seek blind compliance. I suspect that if you went through this post and changed all the "adults" and "parents" and "teachers" to "managers," you'd haven't a decent tract on how to be a good manager.

As for my own history with bosses, I've had nothing but good ones: I've been married for 25 years to one of them! =)

I do, however, believe that hierarchies are a less than ideal (and often anti-human) way to organize people. I'm much more a democracy guy, so that may be where the "itch and bother" comes from.

Mommy, Papa and the 'Nuts said...

Thank you for this post.

Solomon said...

I'm with you on eliminating heirarchies, so I don't think that's the source of my "itch and bother," though democratic management isn't my preference. I'm most interested in a management style called Servant Leadership. The businesses I've seen use it have been exceptional.

Anonymous said...

My comment was deleted! It wasn't even vile! I mentioned my wish for you to observe our household and offer commentary that was less draconian than Supernanny. What gives, Tom?

Teacher Tom said...

Oh no, Anonymous! I don't remember deleting it . . . at least not on purpose. I DO remember seeing it. I'm sorry, please don't take it personally. I only delete posts that are clearly spam.

I have thought about the idea of a progressive Supernanny type program, but I suspect it wouldn't make good TV since we might not be able to come up with nice tidy solutions in half an hour! =)

Thanks for reading!

Jamie said...

@ Solomon, I got the boss- subordinate vibe too... I remember learning in management training that when providing an employee with constructive criticism, it was suggested that we remind the employee of the common goal and explain how their behaviors might be altered to better meet that common goal. As in, "Jane, when you come in late, it does not help us as a team to meet our customer service goals. When you are here on time, we can work better together as a team to help our customers." This makes more sense to me than merely demanding that Jane be in on time "or else".

In my recent interactions with my son, I've really tried to keep this article in mind as well as my management training- trying to explain to him the goal behind my requests instead of just asking him, or demanding as it's been lately, that he do things and it's really been helpful. This is also far better for him as he grows- he will know what to do even when I am not there barking out orders to him! :-)

Who knew that my management training would have more of an impact in my parenting life than it ever did in my work life???

Jamie said...

The real comment I came here intending to post:

THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU. This blog post has far far far improved things with my son, who will be 3 tomorrow. Nap time has been a huge issue and power struggle at our house. He is almost, but not quite, to the point where he does not need the nap anymore. But I need it. I work nights and I need the break nap time affords both of us. It had become something that I dreaded though- I would almost rather keep him up than battle with him to get him to sleep, except that he still really needed that nap.

I yelled, I threatened, I took toys away. Not the kind of parent I wanted to be, but he simply would not go to sleep without a fight. so I thought. It was especially terrible when he started saying my words back to me. "Go to sleep! Lay down on your pillow and just go to sleep! NOW!" Hearing that from his sweet little mouth was heartbreaking, but I didn't know what else to do.

Enter your article. Instead of demanding that he go to bed, I simply kept repeating a statement of fact- "At rest time, we lay in our beds." No matter what he said, I simply replied that single statement. Sometimes, I'll admit, it got a little more terse than others, but I just stuck with that one statement of fact. We also talked about how he feels better after taking a rest, etc, but it was pretty much just that one statement. No demand, no threat, no yelling, just that one statement.

It didn't work the first day. It was rough the second day and ending with a fit from him, then me rubbing his back to finally get him to sleep. I think that yesterday was the third day and it went pretty well. Today is day four and I took his hand, put him in the bed and reminded him that as rest time, we stay in our bed. And he's asleep in his bed. No back rub, no coming to the door 18 times for this or that, he's just in his bed, asleep. You have NO idea how great that is!

So, I'm now completely jinxing myself by posting this, but I really wanted to share what a difference you've made in my relationship with my child. You've helped me to be the kind of parent that I want to be. There are other examples besides rest time that I could share, but this is really the most stark of the turn arounds that I've seen just from changing my perspective on things. Amazing.

Aidan said...


My wife and I have been working hard for a long time and getting nowhere with improving our kids' behaviour at home. Not that they were uniformly badly behaved --- on the contrary, they are beautiful kids and generally great --- but we didn't seem to have a good strategy for the situations when they were not behaving. We often found ourselves, by the end of it all, yelling and storming about and generally behaving no better than the kids were.

Then, a week ago, my wife sent me a link to this post and some others of yours.

I'll be honest: I flat out didn't think that it would work. But we liked the philosophy, and we figured that even if it didn't actually improve the kids' behaviour in those difficult situations, at any rate we'd be feeling better about ourselves when the kids were asleep each night. So we decided to give it a go. And I promised myself that if it was working after a week, then I would come back here and post a comment.

So here I am. For us it works beautifully. We feel better. The kids feel better. And you're right: when it's their decision to make, the children often choose to do helpful things and to behave as they know they ought; whereas when, in the same situation, we used to give them commands, invoking our authority as the parents, they used immediately to pull in the opposite direction.

One of the things I love most about your approach, by the way, is that it forces me to think before I talk. Turns out that you don't convince anyone of anything by saying it loudly at them over and over again ::mock amazement::.

I'm so glad that we decided to give this a try. Of course, it's only been a week, but gee it's been a good week. Thanks Tom.