Disciplining Children by Asking Rather than Telling

No one likes to be told what to do. Think of a time when someone told you what to do or told you that you had to do something. Notice how it conjures up a negative emotion. I grew up with a friend who, when told what to do by a parent, would find an excuse not to do it. Even if it was something he wanted to do, such as going outside to play, he would find an excuse to stay indoors just because he was told.

Depending upon the other person’s mental frame at the time, when we tell a person what to do—regardless of how admirable our intentions —the message is often perceived either as an attempt to control or as a criticism that what the person is doing is not good enough. Young people are in the process of asserting their independence, and they perceive telling as an attempt to control them. In this regard, young people are like adults—who also dislike being controlled.

Besides, teenagers know everything. Mark Twain articulated this when he said, “When I was fourteen my father was so ignorant, I could scarcely stand to have him around; but when I turned twenty-one, I was amazed at how much he has learned in seven years.”

Rather than telling, consider phrasing your idea as a question or stated in a curious mode. For example, if you disapprove of what your youngster wants to do, ask, “What would be the long-term effect of doing that?”

In the situation with my friend, the parent could have had more success by asking, “What’s the weather like outside? I’m thinking of going out later.” After checking the weather, my friend most probably then would have asked to go outside and play—exactly what the parent desired.

More about how to work with young people is at Discipline Online.