These Are The Two Words I Never Say To My Kids, And I Will Tell You Why

by Kelly Bandas
Peopleimages / iStock

We’re entering a tough phase in our house.

It’s this place where some of my children (or more specifically, my oldest child) have become old enough to warrant the expectations of a big kid, but my younger kids are still milking all the perks that come with being “too little” for most acts of true responsibility.

I think this is a real phase. Tell me it’s a real phase and not just a parenting paradox that I’ve conjured up to legitimatize this particular moment in time… Okay, we’re going to go with “it’s a real thing.”

A few nights ago, as I was cleaning up our dessert of strawberries with magic dust (which I now realize sounds like an illicit street drug sprinkled over a kid-friendly fruit, but didn’t make that connection until after I rolled out the name for my world-famous Stevia-sprinkled-over-cut-up-berries-after-dinner treat), I barked some orders to clean up the pillow pile that my sons had built between their twin beds.

“Can you guys start cleaning up, please?”

This is nothing new. If you create the pillow pile (aka every linen, pillow, bean bag in our house, stacked a mile high for jumping into), you must clean up said pillow pile. However, on this particular night — whether it was due to extreme end-of-the-weekend blues or pure exhaustion from an intense indoor football game with their dad — the boys weren’t having it.

“We don’t want to!”

“Will you help us?”

“We’re going to use it again tomorrow!”

And while my internal dialogue wanted to respond with a resounding “I don’t care!” and “Definitely not!” and “No big deal! Just build another one! I don’t think you’ll need CAD to replicate this homage to the trash monster from Fraggle Rock,” instead I paused.

Because I realized that I was the one in the wrong. This one was on me. I had used the two words my husband and I had banned from our parenting lexicon long ago.

“Can you…”

I had made the grave parenting error of asking my children if, in this particular moment, they were capable of helping out. I had presented a nonnegotiable as a question, which they dutifully answered — just not in the way I wanted.

Typically, in our house, when we’re requesting that our children complete a task, it goes something like this:

“Honey, I need you to help clear the table, please.”

“But I need to go finish my Lego Batman fortress with attached drawbridge and secret entrance to the Batcave so that Batman can defeat Joker and Penguin and save Gotham City from their evil weapons!”

“Cool. Okay, well, I need you to help clear the table first. So do you want to clear the plates or the cups?”

Extremely long pause. One eyeroll. One alllmost foot stomp. Two glances down at sneakers. Hands inserted into pockets.


“Okay, let’s work together to clear the table and then you can go finish your Lego Batman fortress with attached drawbridge and secret entrance to the Batcave so that Batman can defeat Joker and Penguin and save Gotham City from their evil weapons!”

If you’re thinking that this conversation reads like a special education strategy/attachment parenting exercise, you’re right! What’s that they say about “parenting what you know” — or is that “writing what you know”?

Anyway, the reason we choose to use this technique in our home is simple. When you present your children with safe choices, they learn the concept of choice-making, while still obeying the king and queen of the castle. When I give my kids choices, it offers them the freedom to maintain some level of autonomy, yet requires them to live within the guidelines set forth by the people who run the joint.

Instead of asking them, “Can you…” we offer, “You can…” and present them with two equally acceptable outcomes. This way, no one walks away from the scenario feeling like they’ve lost something. Sure, we get pushback, temper tantrums, and plenty of elongated vowels, but more often than not, we can navigate our way through the quagmire with minimal pushback.

Because we’ve been doing this for a while, our kids know that my husband and I will never present them with a set of choices that we don’t believe are in their best interest, and this helps lay the foundation for trusting our judgment down the line when, during those pesky teenage years, we’re talking about safe choices to make at a party.

Now, I don’t have any longitudinal data to support this theory, but it stands to reason that if early on, we help our children feel empowered to make safe choices, endorsed by their parents, this will be a skill that carries over into young adulthood and beyond.

Of course, this empowered choice-making must be cultivated in an environment of unconditional love, support, and enthusiastic Lego building, but that probably goes without saying.