Maren Schmidt: When to ask, when to tell |

Maren Schmidt: When to ask, when to tell

Maren Schmidt

Fostering cooperation in our children can be a blood-pressure altering event.

With so many chores that need to be done during the day, we can feel like a drill sergeant, police officer and the Wicked Witch of the West all rolled into one.

To avoid appearing to our children as the epitome of meanness and control, we may overcompensate and be too polite and kind by asking for cooperation, instead of simply expecting cooperation.

Certain items are not negotiable, and for those requests, we should not ask for compliance.

When we say, “Honey, would you please take the garbage out? Okay?” it sounds to our children that they have the right of refusal.

A better way to gain cooperation is to use a factual statement: “It’s time to take the garbage out, please. It’s starting to smell.”

To our children – and our spouses, too – requests can be interpreted too literally by the use of the helping verbs can, will and might.

“Can you take out the garbage, please,” might be interpreted as “Are you able or do you know how to take out the garbage?”

The answer might be a silent “yes,” but no action.

“Will you or would you take out the garbage?” might be interpreted as “When you have the time, would you be willing to take out the garbage?”

Again, with a literal interpretation, the responder might think they have a choice in the matter.

Another one: “May I ask you to take out the garbage?”

Are you beginning to see the language trap we get caught in when we ask instead of tell?

It might seem too forceful, and perhaps impolite, to say, “I need to you to take out the garbage right now, please.” But, the statement is clear and concise and doesn’t lend itself to misinterpretation. Plus, it works.

Life is not all about giving clear directions. We should give our children choices whenever we can. Practicing free choice is a key component in developing self-discipline and fostering cooperation with others. We give choices when it is appropriate to give choices.

For the young child, we can give choices about clothes: “Do you want to wear your blue shirt or green shirt today?”

We can give choices about food: “Would you like green beans or broccoli with dinner tonight?” Notice that the question is not the open-ended alternative, “What would you like for dinner?”

We can give choices about sequence of events: “Would you like to read a book before or after you put on your pajamas?”

Here’s a chart to help you think about the differences between asking, telling and giving choices. Remember that choices you give should be appropriate for the circumstances:

Ask: Are you ready to leave now?

Tell: It’s time to go now. Remember to buckle up.

Choice: Would you like to go now or in fifteen minutes?

Ask: Are you going to fill the dog’s water dish?

Tell: Our dog looks thirsty. Time to fill up his bowl, please.

Choice: Would you like to give the dog water now or after a snack?

Ask: Where are your shoes? We’re late.

Tell: Put your shoes on. It’s time to go.

Choice: Do you want to put your shoes on now or in the car?

Ask: Would you pick up your toys?

Tell: Time to put your toys on your shelves, please.

Choice: Would you like me to help you put away your toys, or do you want to do it yourself?

To foster cooperation, be sure you ask only when giving appropriate choices to direct behavior, or give clear directions with no choice implied. Remember, saying “please” and “thank you” help smooth the waters of cooperation.

Kids Talk TM deals with childhood development issues. Maren Schmidt founded a Montessori school and holds a Masters of Education from Loyola College in Maryland. She has more than 25 years experience working with children and holds teaching credentials from the Association Montessori Internationale. She is author of Understanding Montessori: A Guide for Parents. Contact her at, or visit Copyright 2009.

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