Have you ever said something and immediately realized it was not what you meant to say? Earlier this year my husband and I were in Hungary when the bus we were on pulled over and the driver told everyone to get out. Apparently the driver’s shift was over and there was no replacement driver, so we were unceremoniously left stranded at a bus stop at night in a city we were unfamiliar with and where we could not find anyone who spoke English. In desperation, my husband called on his nearly-forgotten high school German language skills and along with many gestures attempted to communicate with one of the locals. This Hungarian native somehow conveyed to my husband that we needed to buy more bus tickets and he pointed in the general direction of some other buses, which we approached and were waved off until someone actually allowed us to board the bus. In gratitude, as the helpful local man walked away, my husband called out “Gracias!” thereby introducing Spanish into the English-German-Hungarian conversation! That was, in fact, the only part of that “adventure” that I found amusing. My husband reported that as soon as the word “gracias” left his lips he realized his error and felt like he could almost see the word move away in slow motion while he thought, “Noooo!” and watched his utterance go irretrievably onward.
That happens to us as parents, too, doesn’t it? There are times when as soon as we say something we wish we could retract it, especially when we absent-mindedly respond “yes” to a child without realizing what we have just agreed to do. Oops! I suspect some of our children can tell when we are preoccupied and purposefully plan to approach us with requests at such times. I was especially at-risk with my daughter who was quite a talker and ended many of her utterances with, “Right, Mom?” If I just answered without thinking about it, I might find I had just agreed with her that she was my favorite child or that we should have ice cream every night for dessert since it is so delicious. Right? It’s a Question Trap that’s easy to fall into.
I also had to be careful with my responses when I was tired. Having two children diagnosed with AD/HD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, combined type) I learned that they needed less sleep than I did. Since I could not leave them to their own devices in order to catch up on my sleep, I was often operating at a less-than-optimal state of alertness. Combine my lethargy with my children’s hyperactivity and impulsivity and I could have agreed to all kinds of things if I weren’t diligent to monitor my responses and not give in to the temptation to agree just to keep the peace for a few minutes.
Besides inadvertently falling into automatic responses, we can set ourselves up for conflict by the way we word things with our children. What kind of response might you get if you asked your child, “Are you ready to go to bed now?” or “Can you pick up your toys?” We are raised to be polite and to make our requests in nice ways. The problem is that we fall into the habit of asking questions when we really don’t intend to give a choice. That’s The Question Trap all over again. If you ask a child if he is ready to go to bed, he may interpret that as if he has the option of saying “No”. After all, you asked and he happily provided his answer.
I’m sure there are some children who understand that when you ask if they can pick up their toys it really means that you want them to clean them up right away. Some children will comply with that, but there are others who perhaps are more literal thinkers or excel at spotting loopholes who will respond “Yes, I can” but then make no move to pick up their toys. They answered your question, but didn’t comply with what you really wanted them to do. When this occurs, you have fallen into The Question Trap and will need to train yourself to avoid it in the future.
Another one of the polite ways we can fall into The Question Trap is to add “okay” onto the end of the request. Again, we are just trying to be nice about it, but it can backfire because it implies a choice where none is intended. For example, you want your child to eat healthy foods at mealtimes so you say, “Eat your broccoli, okay?” Guess what? To the child, eating broccoli may not seem “okay” and she may feel the freedom to refuse since you implied that she had a choice. Tagging “okay” onto the end of your statement weakens it from a direct request to a negotiable issue.
Teachers in a group setting quickly learn that if they say, “Are you ready to line up?” some students will respond by lining up at the door while others exercise their options until they are directly told, “It’s time to line up now.” Likewise, good teachers learn to use statements when they are giving directions, and avoid tacking “okay” onto the end of their sentences. Instead of saying, “Are you ready to listen?” or “I need you to listen now, okay?” they make statements such as “It’s time to listen now.” The teacher is communicating the same message without giving options that she doesn’t intend to allow. The adult can still be polite and respectful, but it takes practice to choose your words strategically.
There are some children who will attempt to negotiate with you no matter how you phrase your requests to them. If you find you are frequently falling into The Question Trap, however, avoid asking questions when you intend to communicate statements. This may help to eliminate some of the conflicts because you are clearly stating what you want and expect your child to do. The issue of compliance becomes clearer to you and your children as you give directions or make specific requests without unintentionally providing options that are unacceptable to you.
The Question Trap can become a habit that is difficult to break. It will take practice at first, but this way of communicating will become more automatic over time. Ultimately, by breaking the habit you will become a more effective communicator. Are you ready to try it? I think you should give it a chance over the next few days and see what happens, okay? J