Asking For What You Want: Did You Really Say That???

Wait! What Did You Just Say???

In a toy store, we come across a mother and her four-year-old, who is pushing boxes of toy cars and trucks around on a shelf, trying to see what's behind them. The mother looks sternly at her son, clearly wanting him to leave the boxes alone. Then he doesn't stop, the mother says, "Do you want a spanking?" and her son, who looked up momentarily, continues his search for something on the shelf. 

"DO YOU WANT A SPANKING?" the mother repeats, this time much more sternly and stressing every single word. When the boy doesn't stop touching the store items, the mother walks over and whacks him hard on the rear, causing him to arch like a bow and trip down the aisle. No sooner does he stop moving than he again begins to forage through the toys on the shelf. As we move out of earshot, we hear the mother shout,  "WHAT DID I JUST SAY!?!" 

Not Getting What You Want?

Many parents today will tell you that they're not getting what they want from their children. Parents have to struggle to get the respect, cooperation, affection, acceptable behavior, completed tasks, and academic achievement they consider appropriate.

Quite a few parents have actually thrown in the towel. After all, these problems not only seem to plague the whole country, they appear to be taking on epidemic proportions. And there's very little indication that things are likely to get better. Almost no one's satisfied or optimistic about the future: parents, educators, mental health professionals, or the media. 

By contrast, the outlook of our book, What Did I Just Say!?!, is surprisingly upbeat. That's because we believe that parents can discover in their own homes what we have discovered over many years of clinical work with children and families -- namely, that many frustrating and seemingly insurmountable problems actually have simple, easy to understand causes, as well as equally simple and easy to understand solutions. 

Problems of Miscommunication

More often than not, the problems are a matter of simple -- but pervasive -- miscommunication. The solutions lie in two fundamental avenues:  in becoming aware of what we actually say when we speak to our kids, and in beginning to understand children more on their own terms, as they actually are. 

Sound too good to be true? Our years of experience say otherwise. Problems that have been diagnosed as oppositional-defiant behavior, refusal to take responsibility for one's actions, academic underachievement, and even formal psychiatric disorders such as Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD or ADD), Learning Disabilities (LD), Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD), depression, and anxiety have yielded to little more than a bit of patience and a willingness to see old things in a new way. 

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Consider our story from the toy store. 

When parents like this harried mother of a four-year-old encounter what they consider uncooperative behavior, they often expect the worst. Some lose control in frustration. Others reach for labels, diagnostic pigeonholes all too eagerly handed out by mental health professionals. Is this child oppositional and defiant, or is there a receptive language disorder? 

But what really happened in the toy store? 

What's really going on is a huge communication mismatch, and an absolutely unnecessary one. When the mom asked her four-year-old whether he wanted a spanking, we assume that what she really meant was "Don't touch" or "Leave those toys alone." But that's not at all what she said. Instead, she asked her son a question: "Do you want a spanking?"

So, even if she had wanted her son to think about "being good", "doing as you're told", or, presumably, "not touching the toys", this mother in fact changed the subject to whether her son wanted a spanking. As we walked away, what we heard was still not a clear and unequivocal command that her son not touch the toys. Instead, her loud and exasperated words were, "What did I just say?" 

The question, of course, doesn't have a thing to do with whether or not her son should touch items on store shelves. So the question is self-defeating. If you want an answer, ask a question. If you want action, issue a command -- in this case, "Don't touch the toys." 

We All Do It 

It's not just moms who often don't hear what they're really saying to their children. Doctors, teachers, therapists -- unless they're really tuned in to this issue -- all have a tendency to say things that are very different from what they really mean and what they really want to communicate. And kids, as we'll explain later, have "logic antennas" -- they tune into what parents and other adults say literally and logically. 

When Calvin says to his mom, "Weren't you listening either?" he sounds like a disrespectful smart aleck -- which, of course, much of the time he is. But Calvin does have a point here. Beneath his flippant attitude is much more than a mere technicality. Rarely do parents, or adults in general, hear what they're really saying. 

Shortly after running into the mom and her four-year-old at the toy store, we happen upon a similar scene in a grocery store. Looking for the produce section in a large supermarket, we run into a bottleneck where a group of grandmotherly women are admiring an extremely handsome and compact little Robert Redford look-alike dressed shirtless in Oshkosh B'Gosh coveralls. 

"He is such a cutie," one woman exclaims. 

"And he's so well behaved!" says another. 

"He looks just like his dad," adds a third. "How old is he?" The obviously proud young father, another Robert Redford look-alike dressed Florida-style in running shorts and a Gold's Gym T-shirt, plays his role as matter-of-fact successful parent. 

"Two and a half," says the dad, adding, "he's a good minder." 

We're just about through the checkout line when we again come upon the father and son. The dad heads right from the checkout counter toward the packaged ice refrigerator by the exit, while Junior, who hadn't noticed his dad's detour, continues straight toward the automatic doors. 

"If you go by that street, you're in trouble!" says the dad firmly. Struck by an acute attack of parent-deafness, junior picks up speed, his waddle-run carrying him to within a few feet of the very busy strip mall parking, where his dad grabs him by one arm and pulls him back. 

"NOW WHAT DID I JUST SAY!?!" we hear once again as the pair disappear back into the store. 

It's Everywhere! 

If you take the trouble to look and listen carefully, you'll discover that scenes like those we encountered in the mall and the grocery store are by no means rare. In fact, you'll run into such scenes repeatedly wherever you find parents and children. The more you pay attention to these things, the more the blur of the obvious will give way to surprising details, details that you've always seen but never really appreciated. 

As you watch and listen to what's going on around you, ask yourself a simple question. Is that parent -- or crossing guard, PE teacher, or camp counselor -- getting what he or she wants? Much of the time the answer will be NO.

Then ask yourself what all those ineffectual words have in common with "What did I just say!?!" You'll discover that such expressions are empty because they don't really communicate anything relevant to the intentions of the speaker. The more you listen, the more you'll hear empty utterances that lead nowhere. 

  1. Can't you behave? 
  2. Are you going to stop it? 
  3. Billy, what's going on? (As Billy screams his head off) 
  4. You're driving me crazy. 
  5. It's not nice to hit Daddy. 
  6. We're not a hitting family. 
  7. We don't do that. 
  8. That's not polite. 

Let's take a look at these very common expressions and see what's going on. 

Wrong Question -- Wrong Answer

"Can't you behave?" is, first and foremost, a question. So we already know what will pass instantaneously through the child's mind -- the answer: "Sure, I can, if I want to. But I don't want to." 

"Can't you behave?" is also a suggestion. To see whether a question is a suggestion or a command, just make it a statement. In this case, we get "You can't behave." So the very form of the question suggests to the child that he or she can't behave. This is the exact opposite of what the adult wants and intends to convey! But there is an even more subtle and transparent meaning to "Can't you behave?" The question seems to imply that children, even very young children, simply know what behaving is and know how to do it.

Much of what parents say to young children sounds like a series of variations on test questions relating back to material the child supposedly learned long before entering this world. Such questions must be very confusing for young children. Adults, however, typically hear only the conventional meaning and remain unaware of the effect their words may have. Missing is any sense of process, any recognition that behaving is something that has to be defined, illustrated, and cultivated by adults in order for it to develop in children. And processes take time. 

As with most of these expressions, "Can't you behave!" is also a cry of exasperation. Decidedly more than just a suggestion that the child can't behave, this expression, like the rest, is part of an unending stream of negative descriptions that parents would never make if they understood how they are heard and what their impact can be, especially over time. 

"Are you going to stop it?"

"Are you going to stop it?" is another question to which the knee-jerk reflex response is "No." But it is also a statement of adult impotence and powerlessness. Why would an adult who can actually control her child's behavior ask that same child if she was going to "stop it"? 

"Billy, what's going on?" asked Mother matter-of-factly in response to his ear-piercing screaming in our local bookstore. Billy's mother's question came after five or six of those painfully high-pitched shrieks that only very young children can produce. While it might be nice to know what was going on in little Billy's mind, the question was empty because what this mother really wanted was for Billy not to scream. 

"You're driving me crazy!"

"You're driving me crazy!" conveys to a child that the adult is at her wit's end, that she "can't take it anymore". This child must be incredibly powerful! Such exclamations constitute negative empowerment. Kids love power. They crave it like drugs. They'll grab up all the power adults are willing to give them. And once they begin to understand that they can push your buttons, that's exactly what they will do -- over and over and over. 

"It's not nice to hit Daddy" is another empty, ineffectual statement. If you're wondering what goes through the child's mind on hearing something like this, it's probably "So what!" or "It's not nice for Daddy to yell at me, either!"

But what's so striking about the statement is what it's not. It is NOT an order to stop hitting Daddy. And because it's not a command, the statement is an implicit, if inadvertent, form of collusion. It says effectively "It may not be nice, but it's okay," a meaning that is conveyed and reinforced by the accompanying lack of action. Since even little children tend to be brilliant Masters of Technicalities, it is wise to assume that they will think something like "But you never told me not to hit him... you just said it wasn't nice." 

"We're not a hitting family" and "We don't do that" are particularly fascinating because both statements are so obviously false. Since the child is, in fact, hitting, and since the child does, in fact, belong to the family, the family is clearly a "hitting family". This is the simple syllogistic logic at which even very young children excel. 

"That's not polite" is another of those categorical statements that, for adults, carry implicit conventional meaning; in this case, "It's not polite, so don't do it." Unfortunately, adults never get around to the conventional meaning -- "Don't do it!" -- and then they wonder why children don't comply. 

Paying Attention

Paying attention to your everyday surroundings as if they were an unknown foreign culture can teach you important lessons very quickly. There's absolutely nothing new in the expressions that we've chosen out of the many we all hear every day. We've all heard these common expressions a million times, but most of us don't pay much attention to them. Everyday events and experiences tend to be transparent. In fact, most of what goes on around us is transparent in the sense that, although it's there right before our very eyes, we see right through it. 

But when we look carefully, we find that the five little words in "What did I just say!?!" actually reveal more about the exasperating aspects of parenthood and child management than any other expression uttered daily by adults. Genuinely understood, this often-heard string of words contains the keys to solving a great many of the problems parents face today. What's really behind this common expression? 

  1. A global admission of adult loss of control over often tiny children 
  2. An implicit admission that parental words don't work 
  3. A desperate adult demand for recognition and acknowledgment 
  4. The implicit belief that somehow the (often public) acknowledgment of parental or adult authority will result in the desired behavior
  5. The implicit belief that getting another person, child or adult, to repeat back words means that those words were understood and/or accepted 

What may have at first seemed to be a complicated mess -- the parent-child dynamic -- becomes clearer and clearer the closer and more carefully you took and listen. This is extremely important because, although there is an immense amount of technical information out there that can be of use to parents, most of what you need to know, understand, and use is right there within your own everyday world. No advanced degree, specialty training, or traditional expert knowledge can provide what you can see, hear, and understand for yourself. 

Unfortunately, if you shift your focus from the supermarket and the toy store to places where you would expect adults to be more in tune with children and more in control of what's going on -- classrooms, psychiatrists' and therapists' offices, etc. -- you'll see and hear the very same exchanges. The vocabulary may differ but the details of what is said and done do not. That's probably the most important reason why the increasing sophistication of professional knowledge and expertise hasn't brought about a corresponding increase in solutions to the problems of adults and children. 

Simple and Simplistic Approaches 

Because we offer many "simple" approaches to dealing with communication and behavior, it's important to make clear exactly what we mean by that common term. When we talk about a "simple" approach to children's behavior or learning problems or to parent-child communications, we mean that what needs to be done can be explained and understood in straightforward commonsense terms and that the components of what needs to be done are themselves simple and can be described and understood simply. 

"Simple" does NOT mean that the process will be effortless or even short. It just means that, with patience and persistence, reasonable goals can be met without complex technology, recourse to expensive professionals or treatments.

"Simplistic", on the other hand, refers to the belief, implicit in so much everyday adult behavior, that complex human problems can be solved instantaneously, with little work and often with the use of medications. Simplistic approaches relieve everyone of personal responsibility, while our simple approaches require patience and consistency and continuity over time. This doesn't mean that parenting has to be hard work. It takes no more energy to do things in a rational and problem-solving fashion than most parents are already putting into the process. It's just a different way of thinking about things, a different way of relating and communicating. 

Seeing the World Differently 

How hard is it to learn to see the world differently? It's not hard at all to make the necessary change in perspective -- once. However, what is more difficult is learning how to recognize and change patterns of listening, thinking, and acting.

Thinking and communication styles are behavioral habits. Fortunately, while it may take some effort, even ingrained habits can be changed. All that's required is a bit of self-observation, curiosity about what's happening right before our very eyes, and the willingness to put into action what we explain in different ways throughout our book, What Did I Just Say!?!

Once parents begin to hear what they themselves have been saying, and once they begin to understand how children think and communicate, they can say what they really mean and mean what they really say.

Copyright 1999 Denis Donovan and Deborah McIntyre.
Published by Henry Holt; 0805060790; Sept. 99.

Article Source

What Did I Just Say!?!: How New Insights into Childhood Communication Can Help You Communicate More Effectively with Your Child
by Denis Donovan, M.D., M.ED., and Deborah McIntyre, M.A., R.N.

A guide to communicating effectively with children covers the experiential world of children, creating effective structures and boundaries, encouraging healthy emotional development, decreasing anger and aggression, and much more.

Info/Order this book

About The Authors

Denis Donovan, M.D., M.ED., a child and adolescent psychiatrist, is the medical director of the Children's Center for Developmental Psychiatry in St. Petersburg, Florida. Deborah McIntyre,  M.A., R.N., is a nurse and child therapist. Husband and wife, they have worked together for over fifteen years and are the coauthors of Healing the Hurt Child and the originators of the developmental-contextual approach to child psychotherapy and play therapy.

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