Don’t ask questions if they aren’t questions – I have a good friend who is a lawyer (who shall remain nameless for the purposes of this article) who often admonishes me for asking questions when I don’t have to. It is a common social artifice, but it rarely serves any purpose other than maintaining niceties. In fact, it actually can pull us further away from our goals. For example, when we met up for a hangout in February, we had the following interaction:
“Do you want to go out to dinner?” I say, starving because I worked through lunch.
“Nah,” she says. “I’m good.”
“Oh. Um, OK.” I say, beginning to gnaw on my pen. “It’s just that…”
“JUST TELL ME THAT YOU’RE HUNGRY AND WE WILL GO EAT!!!”
We all have that problem with our kids, especially our gifted kids. We try to be accommodating and kind. We try to take their needs into account. But it is easy to take that tactic too far and it diminishes our authority when we do. For example, who has had a similar interaction to this:
“Sally, don’t you want to start your homework?”
“No, dad, I don’t want to.”
“Well, I think that it’s time to start it.”
“Start your homework, young lady!”
“Stop yelling at me!”
The dad in this situation is trying to be reasonable and accommodating to get his daughter to start her homework. The conversation is not a negotiation or a supplication; it is a demand. The homework must be done. But when we feel that we are making demands of our kids, we feel guilty, so we soften our tone, sometimes straight into making questions of demands. And when we do, we don’t get the response that we want, because kids will give the honest answer rather than the answer that we want to hear. So we then try to toughen up, scrambling to regain some sort of foot-hold. But our kids have the momentum, so they push back again. Now we’re mad, and we end up doing the thing that our anxiety made us try to avoid in the first place: we get harsh. We yell. We holler. We threaten. Regardless of the outcome, both sides end up leaving the situation unhappy.
In the above situation, Dad wants Sally to do her homework. This is a perfectly reasonable request. Yes, kids; it really is. The trick to success is to not ask a question. Doing the homework is a responsibility. If it is time to do the homework, it is time to do the homework. As a parent, you can give that demand firmly and clearly. You’re not mad; you’re firm. It is a task and it needs to be done. As the parent, your job is to deliver that task and your child’s job is to do it.
Here’s another version of that conversation:
“Sally, it’s time to start your homework.”
“Aw, dad, I don’t want to.”
“I know, but it is time to do so. You can play video games when you’re done.”
This technique isn’t going to give you sunshine and rainbows from your kids, but by giving them the direction clearly, you are giving them far less wiggle room to try and escape. And if the child pushes back, you started at a calm but firm place, so you have a lot more emotional space to move before/if you get angry. These statements also assist in reasserting and reaffirming power dynamics and roles within the family, which (as we know) gifted kids are good at challenging.
Why do gifted kids challenge those power dynamics anyway? One good theory is that a sense of control is important to maintaining emotional equilibrium. As kids feel less in control when faced with unpleasant/non-preferred tasks, they feel more emotional. This emotion causes them to seek control wherever they can find it. In this case, saying “no” to reassert some measure of autonomy, because everyone tells them that “they’re so smart and so mature” so shouldn’t they get a say? Shouldn’t they be in charge? That’s not possible, but understanding the emotional process behind the words (and the fight) will empower you to work with your kids not against them.
As a guide, here are some common questions that parents ask, and how to turn them into statements:
“Are you hungry?” “Let’s take a snack break”
“Do you need a break?” “Come help me in the kitchen”
“Why don’t you do your chores?” “Now is a good time to take out the garbage”
“Come to the gym with me?” “Let’s go work out.”