Are You Asking Permission To Be A Parent? by Connie Dawson

Years ago, while teaching a college class in parenting, I talked about the importance of using responsible language.  Jean Illsley Clarke, author of Self Esteem: a Family Affair, identified how the use of language can make clear (or unclear) who is responsible for what.  Using responsible language can prevent many control battles that end badly.  Using irresponsible language can invite a mess AND doesn’t address the original request or problem.

A College Class Experiment

To hear (and feel) the difference between responsible and irresponsible language, I asked pairs of students to take turns role-playing the parent and the child. I asked the parent to say in a kind but firm way, “I need you to pick up your toys now,” to their partners.  Then, “Please pick up your toys now.”  I heard their responses to both.

I moved on to another class topic but had to stop because of four intensely engaged women in the back of the room.  “What’s going on?” I asked. Turns out, they were fussing about having been misled into using the “I need you to” strategy and had it backfire way too often!  They were anxious to try something that worked better.


Responsible Language Avoids Conflict

Here’s a clue when we’re using irresponsible language.  When we hear a request or a directive and could respond with “So?” and a curled upper lip, the language is not clear about who is responsible for what.  Try these:

   1.  “I need you to pick up your toys.”

        “Please put your toys in the toy box now.” 

    2. “Please put your shoes on, okay?”

        “Please put your shoes on now.  We’re leaving.”

A tip: When issuing a directive, assume it will be carried out and leave the room or be about your business.  If the child fails to comply, she doesn’t get to continue to receive your multitudinous services.  She doesn’t help, you don’t help.  When she asks or demands something from you, great consideration should be given to her previous non-cooperation!  Life is, after all, a two-way street.  Reciprocity rules!

There are many, many times in the course of every-day parenting that life goes a lot smoother when the parent is in charge in a good way, even though the child isn’t happy.  Go for long-term happiness, not short-term placating.  After all, as parents, we desire to prepare our children to be successful human beings in the long haul.


How many of us have heard a parent issue an instruction to a child and then ask the child if he or she agrees?  

     “Wait until I help you cross the street, okay?”

     “Please pick up your toys now, okay?”

     “Do your homework before you play, okay?”

When they ask “Okay?” most parents probably mean, “Did you hear and understand me?”  They don’t mean to ask for the child’s agreement with a directive, particularly when the directive involves safety issues.

“Okay?” is Overindulgence?

According to our overindulgence studies, one way to overindulge children is to allow them to take the lead or dominate the family.  Using “Okay?” can be an inadvertent way of doing this.

A child might think, “If I’m being asked to agree, they must not know what is necessary and good for me.”   Or “If I’m being asked to agree, I guess it’s okay if I disagree.”  

Think how this works in the adult world.  An employer gives an employee instructions and expects the instructions will be carried out.  Life as a worker doesn’t go well if the employee is entitled to comply at her whim.  Not having learned this as a child will likely cause her pain as an adult.

The Dalai Lama has wisely said, “Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.”

Good Leaders

How do leaders make good decisions?  They have a clear mission.  They know themselves well.  They either have or get the knowledge they need.  They have or learn the skills to do what they want to do.  And they have or develop a supportive environment and supportive relationships that enable their success.

My directive to you is, “Be effective, responsible and psychological leaders for your children.”  No “Okay?” about that!

There is more help about avoiding overindulgence in How Much is Too Much? Raising Likeable, Responsible, Respectful Children – From Toddlers To Teens – In An Age of Overindulgence (2014, DaCapo Press Lifelong Books).

All photos from MorgueFile free photo. 


© David J. Bredehoft, Jean Illsley Clarke & Connie Dawson 2004-2022;