Just Say Nothing

We want our children to grow up to be decision makers. We also want them to make good decisions. How can we get them to do the right thing and treat them as if they know what they are doing at the same time? How can we treat them as if they know what they are doing, when we half know that they don’t?

As I was saying goodbye to early childhood teacher Gretchen Ott on my last day at Children’s Day School, she reminded me of a very important technique. She said: “A long time ago I learned the trick of not saying anything. If a student did something I knew he knew was wrong, I would just give him a look. I’m still perfecting my look, and I wish I did it more.”

I laughed, “Yup. Me, too.”

We know how often we still waste our breath. Do we really need to say: “You made a bad choice” as often as we do? Isn’t there a look that would be even more eloquent than words because it triggers words in the child’s head?

Over the summer I saw parents practicing just-say-nothing, even my own children with their children. I saw a look that said: “I can’t believe I saw what I think I saw! I bet you can fix that on your own without me having to tell you what you know I am about to tell you.”

Then there’s the: “Would you like to show me that you know better than that? I would rather not embarrass you by correcting you in front of Susan?” and the: “I can’t believe you thought you could get away with that.”

I keep forgetting to use the look that says: “How often have I told you to say, ‘please?’”

If our communication is more subtle, the children can still act as if they still in charge of themselves.  Too much direction on the parent’s part can undermine a child’s sense of their own authority. What techniques have you discovered for handling the dilemma of needing to be an authority and at the same time needing to raise your child to be an authority?

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6 thoughts on “Just Say Nothing

  1. I was interested in the theme of beating to your own drum and how our words sometimes undermine the very thing we are trying to achieve. I learned a while ago that asking questions is sometimes a good way to go. For example when a kid in my class was doing marshall arts instead of the work assigned, I asked him ‘why are you doing marshall arts in class’ when he said he didn’ t know I asked him if he thought it was the perfect place for Marshall Arts. He thought for a moment and then said , ‘no the aisles are too narrow. Made me smile. Then he sat down and did his work. I don’ t know if that’s a great strategy or not. I use it a lot with my 11 year old daughter. It works for me, I am hoping that it works for my daughter and the kids I come into contact with. What do you think?

  2. Asking a question is a great way to go. In fact anything that turns something that might make you mad into a smile and the behavior you want is is the picture of great.

  3. what a nice reminder. I have always felt that using less words is better. I would love to implement the look and see where it takes us. what has worked for us is asking “what” questions rather than “why”. so rather than saying “why did you hit your brother” I would ask “what just happened?” and the answer to the rest of it would come straight from a 4 year old.

  4. Really good move not asking why. “Why did you do that?” invites excuses; they usually don’t know why; and it doesn’t matter anyway. We don’t really care why. We care what are you going to do about it, and did you learn anything from it?
    Raising consciousness about what just happened is also important.

  5. My dad was a master of “the look.” You always knew, instantly, whether he approved or disapproved of what you just did. For myself, one thing I used frequently, during 15 years of working with emotionally disturbed, conduct disordered children and adolescents (who were often somewhat socially and emotionally, um, challenged) was to model, aloud, my own decision making process, including the evaluation of conflicting demands, ethical considerations, and practical alternatives. For example (thinking aloud) “Both Lucy and Henry want to swing right now, but there’s only one swing. Of course the only fair thing is for them to take turns and I’m sure they already know that. But who should go first, and how would I decide? Well, really, why should I decide? Wouldn’t it be better for them to do it? Yes, I think that’s the best thing. I’ll ask them to decide how they think they should work this out. Lucy, Henry, you both want to swing, but there’s only one swing. How do you think you should work this out?”

    The quantity and complexity of this “self-talk” had to be adapted to the developmental age of the participants, but I found that, after only a few modeling examples, I’d hear the students employing the same technique with one another.

  6. Brilliant, verbalizing your thought process to children. For many children it is exactly what they need, and it is one of the things we can offer: a window into a mature, adult thought process–what a gift. I can imagine how it can be done playfully–or almost playfully depending upon the situation. …and not sarastically as if “you are idiots for not already knowing this.”

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