Friday, February 10, 2012

Say What You Mean and Ask For What You Want

In this series of posts, I explore my personal challenges with each of the principles of unconditional parenting. These personal accounts run in parallel with a series of information-based posts where I explain each of the 13 basic principles of unconditional parenting as described in Kohn's book, Unconditional Parenting. Want to start from the beginning? Click here for the Introduction to Unconditional Parenting and for links to all posts in the series.

When my son and I do laundry together, he likes to help push the laundry cart. He also likes to climb up on the rack under the laundry bags, a rack made of rather flimsy metal.  The cart isn't strong enough to support a bouncing two-year old so his climbing feat isn't all that cool. I've asked him not to stand on the cart many times, but the temptation still arises, especially if I'm busy folding clothes.

I could forcefully order him No, don't do that. I could weakly imply that "We" don't climb on that. But neither of those requesting tactics work because neither is rooted in respect. Using forceful words is controlling and creates a power struggle (do you like to be talked to that way?). On the other hand, being indirect muddles the message so the child doesn't know what you really want. The popular "we don't" isn't a request, it's an untrue statement (note that he's already climbing).

I could also take the middle ground by being both compassionate and assertive: Please don't climb on that. Usually, that's the general approach I take, along with a number of other gentle strategies I've written about (check them out: Toddler Compliance, Toddler Defiance, and Speaking Respectfully to a Toddler).

Recently, and with some inspiration from nonviolent communication, I've started phrasing my requests in terms of what I want and need. It's a subtle change in words, but the results are rather dramatic. I feel empowered when I ask my son to do or not do something because I express my desires honestly. And I think he feels empowered because the approach is so honest. Instead of making a demand from dominant figure to submissive figure, I respectfully state my request, from human to human:

"Munchkin, I don't want you to climb on the laundry cart. Do you see the how the metal bends when you climb up there? I'm afraid the cart will break and I would be very sad if it broke. Will you please get down from there?"

He did, in fact, get down without a fuss. Did I mention he's two years old? Yeah, wow.

The same strategy works for getting him to do something he doesn't want to, like put on his diaper before bedtime:

"I don't like it when you say 'no' and run away," I said this with genuine sadness in my voice while looking him in the eye. "I want you to come over here and put on your diaper. I like it when you help me put on your diaper. I like it when you cooperate and we do it together. I like to be close to you because then we can play together, too."    

He responded by coming over to me. He sat down on top of the diaper and we played one of our little games while I fastened the diaper.

I think part of the trick is in the "I statement:"

I want you to...
I don't want you to....
I don't like it when....
I like it when...
*I feel scared when....
*I feel angry when...
*I feel happy when....

Switching requests from pronoun-free directives to "I statements" is a liberating shift. I feel calmer and freer, regardless of outcome. I'm not going to argue that it works every time, but it certainly does most of the time. It also works a whole lot better if the parent-child relationship is in good condition because it underscores the mutual respect in the relationship. If I get into power struggle mode or am too afraid to be forthright with my requests, I lose my son's trust and respect. Then he's not likely to do anything I ask, no matter how I request it.

I'll talk more about the importance of the parent-child relationship later in this series. Next time, we'll begin to explore the topic by considering  long-term goals. For now, I'll just keep practicing this new way of asking for what I really want.

*Use of feeling words can be tricky. Check out the comment below from Issa and my response to it for a discussion of the concerns in using feelings when making requests.

How do you ask for what you want from your kids? Have you noticed when it's more or less likely to work?


  1. Thank you for this! I'm going to practice my "I statements" this weekend. Such a good reminder.

  2. Dylan is only 8 months old, so he doesn't really respond to my requests, yet, but I am using this time to practice the words I want to use. I don't like just saying No to things, and I hate "We don't". I tried using "we don't" for touching the TV. My partner and I agreed that we wouldn't touch it at all, either, and would only use the remote to operate it, so that the "we don't" phrase would be accurate. But it still felt pushy and insincere. I mean, clearly Dylan DOES touch the TV, since, you know, he's doing it, and that's why I'm trying to tell him not to! I say a lot of "I don't want you to..."

    I wonder about the use of feeling statements with kids - "I'm scared when..." etc. I wonder if there's a risk of the kid feeling responsible for the feelings of the parent. Definitely, if you're grabbing the kid away from an unsafe situation and expressing real fear or anger (or something similar), I think that's really valuable. But what about the sort of regular, repetitious "I like this, that makes me happy, that makes me sad" sort of stuff? Where's the line between honestly expressing feelings and using feelings to coerce? I don't know. What do you think?

  3. @Issa, I completely agree with your concerns about using "I feel" statements. I was unsure whether to include them in this post without further explanation, for just the reasons you said! Statements like, "if you do that I will be sad/mad/happy" strike me as very coercive. Kids are sooo susceptible to that language and it can be quite damaging.

    Instead, I try to say things like "I'm afraid you will get hurt". I speak gently and matter-of-fact, and leave the choice up to him. He might slip and get bumped or he might not. I TRY not to transfer my fear to him, but I let him know what I think/feel when he asks if something is OK for him to do. The point is that I focus on what's driving me to say yes or no to something. Sometimes it's an irrational fear or silly preference, so I have to keep my mouth shut. If the danger is imminent, I wouldn't negotiate, I'd just help him!.

    It's a subtle difference and finding the line takes practice (and mistakes). I don't want my son to feel responsible for my emotions, but I do think it's good for him to learn that his actions affect others. Those lessons, however, have to come slowly, gently, and be developmentally-appropriate. I think of it all in terms of learning about empathy. As I see him gain greater emotional awareness in himself and others, I let him know a little more about how I feel. Otherwise, I keep my requests and explanations simple (I don't want you to). Hope that makes sense!

    1. check out this link for some simple examples of statements that show when the parent is taking responsibility for her own feelings or when the child is inadvertently being held accountable for the parent's feelings:

  4. Ah, this is very helpful for me since I haven't studied much NVC but keep hearing good things about it. Thanks for the little tutorial! I'm going to practice these statements this week.

  5. This is a great reminder for us to own what we're feeling and be honest about what we are asking for. I've had my kids counter with a perfectly reasonable argument, like "I'll help you clean up afterwards" if I was concerned about the mess, and then they are much more likely to actually clean up when it was agreed upon ahead of time. My 4 year old is really sensitive to my tone of voice, and if I say something like I was talking to a toddler, he becomes offended. But if I speak to him the way I'd say it to one of my teenagers, he'll respond with a lot more maturity. Sometimes I have trouble shifting between the ages, as they are so far apart, ranging from a relatively helpless 2 year old to a 19 year old I can give the car keys and send to the store for a few things.

    1. Elena, you make an excellent point about tone of voice and age-appropriate communication. Generally, I try to talk to my son like a "regular" person but with simpler words and sentences. For me, it's easier to keep this up all day and to switch between listeners. It sounds like your 4 YO appreciates being spoken to as (almost) adult, also. Maybe the 2 YO won't mind, either?

  6. I have also noticed a difference when I make requests to my toddler by also expressing why I need whatever action from him and invite him to cooperate. The tone I use makes a big difference too. If I have an undercurrent of anger or frustration in my voice he completely ignores me and just gets upset.