For Them to Listen, You Need to Be Listening

A Plea for Child Carers, Rearers, and Engagers

Photo by Gustavo Fring on Pexels.com

Scenario 1

I’m on the self-check-out line at the grocery store, waiting for a free machine. It’s busier than usual and a few of us wait our turn. A woman looks up from scanning a cartful of items and sees the line of customers backing up — she seems stressed, a bit frazzled, perhaps even a bit guilty for having so many items on a self-serve line. I maintain a placid look and browse the cookie display to my left.

I’m empathetic and I have no desire to rush her. She’s checking herself out, requiring her to scan and bag everything alone, all while keeping tabs on an imaginative 4-yr-old who is holding the cart with one hand and playing with a toy dinosaur with the other. He’s keeping himself occupied while she has a lot going on. No one else on the line behind me seems concerned either — there are two other machines that could free up at any moment. The other customers seems patient and unconcerned.

The dinosaur gallops across the register, across the scanner, and falls onto the weighted bagging surface. A robotic voice sounds: Please remove the unscanned item. And then the woman, with an actual finger pointed several inches from the kid’s face, grunts, “You’re not being a good listener!” He recoils in fear, eyes wide, silent, then snatches the dinosaur back and slides himself to the other side of the cart without ever losing contact.

I’m taken aback. In this scenario, what is a Good Listener? I’m an adult, and I have no idea what she’s talking about. Should he? 

Scenario 2

I’m at the shoe store, hoping to return a pair of $80 sandals I’d bought thinking they’d only cost $25. Ahead of me, next on line for the register, is a grandmother and a young boy, maybe five or six. The boy is asking questions about the sock display — Why do they have cats and no dogs? Nana, where are the kid socks? What are these for (pointing at the barely-there nylon toe covers)? 

All good questions. I’m wondering how I’d answer them as if he’d asked me. Maybe cats are more popular sellers, or dog socks have all sold out. Kid socks are probably over by kid shoes, or near the socks section — the register is just a sampling of the sock stock. And I have no idea what those stretchy nylon toe traps are for — they’ve never done anything for me except been annoying the for 10 minutes they were on my feet before I threw them across the room.

Nana is not answering any of his questions. She’s patently ignoring him, despite him being polite, deferential, and attentive. When she gets called to the register, she steps up, turns, and barks, “Get over here” and then not two seconds later, lunging and grabbing his wrist, “You’re not listening, come here, don’t move.” 

When was he supposed to move those three feet from the line to the register? How was he supposed to know he should be listening for her commands while she was ignoring his questions? How quickly was he supposed to “get” before being branded “not listening”?

Mind-boggled, I continue to watch as his affect falls from chipper and curious to dejected and sad. His arms have fallen lifelessly to his sides. His chin is on his chest. Still, a woman with a stack of shoe boxes brushes by him and he attentively steps backward to move out of the way. Nana, not seeing the woman, looks down, “That’s it, I said don’t move. You’re not listening, so no ice cream now.” His face wells up and he hurries to wipe away the tears, holding his breath and turning red. “Oh grow up,” says Nana, as she grabs his wrist to guide him out of the store. 

I fear for his potentially stunted emotional development and the tattered shards of a relationship he has with Nana. I hope there are other adults in his life who will answer questions, acknowledge his attentiveness, and support him.

Real Stories, Not Exaggerations

In my experience, those of us who are professionally trained and experienced working with kids are one of two ways: 

  1. Overly empathetic, attuned to all kids around us at all times, struggling not to butt in to parent-child interactions unless the most dire circumstances call for it, quick to make goofy eye contact or wave at toddlers, and quick to compliment a kid’s hat or shoes to put a smile on their face. It takes every ounce of strength for us in these scenarios to keep our mouths shut and mind our own business, only interjecting if something is clearly putting a child in harm’s way.
  2. Exhausted, overworked, and short-tempered, incapable of dealing with one more kid for one more minute especially when we’re off-the-clock, running scripts on autopilot and expecting more of our own kids than they could possibly perform. From a glance, the women from these scenarios seem to exist here. 

The grocery store and shoe store stories are true — happening just as I’ve described them. 

Both of those women were also educators — one wearing a shirt from a local school indicating such, the other brandishing a school ID for a discounted rate. This means they’ve been trained, presumably, to be on the lookout for these types of missteps. I find this the most appalling part of their stories — that they’ve entirely lost perspective, with their own children, and possibly with all children. 

They’re Doing Their Best

The women I’ve described may be the most patient, loving, attentive women most of the time — maybe just having off days. Maybe they were stressed, overworked, underpaid, receiving awful news, and having difficulty coping with the world we all inhabit. Maybe, after a long, dark, tense day full of harsh realities, they were really doing their best. Maybe they went home, apologized, and openly explained to their children that being an adult is challenging and that emotions, while a personal responsibility to control, are sometimes difficult to understand, even for adults who love their kids very much.

Maybe I’m being too generous. But maybe they really were doing their best.

To them, and others like them, I plead, the most important thing to remember, the kids were doing their best too. Neither kid was being malevolent, harmful, or intentionally troublesome. (Most kids aren’t.) They both seemed timid, not testing, after explosive commands. They both were minding themselves, attending, listening when they were chastised. 

Even on the worst day, it is the adult’s responsibility to retain, or regain, control — of themselves — first. If a child is not responding in the ‘proper’ way, the adult needs to reconsider exactly how appropriate ‘proper’ is, and how intentional ‘proper’ has been communicated. 

If something an adult is doing makes a child cry, shrink in terror, or freeze up, it is the adult’s responsibility to change the narrative. If they don’t, they’re the ones not listening.

Photo by Kamaji Ogino on Pexels.com

Listen, We’re Not Listening

As a culture, we need to get back to basics.

First off, what outward physical sign are we expecting to see when we tell a kid to Listen? Listening is an active event, but it’s mostly unobservable. 

To know for certain if a kid is listening, we see them follow directions or change their facial expression. Can a kid be listening without reacting? Listening without responding? Listening without changing their expression or action? Listening while playing, moving, looking away? Yes, absolutely, yes.

“Listen!” They are. They’re listening more than we know. Unless we tell them exactly what we want them to do, they can’t possibly show us they’re listening. They hear is all of the things that go unsaid. And they’re learning how to interact with people when they grow up, how to cope, how to communicate, and how to be an adult — from all the things we say and don’t say, and all the ways we say and don’t say them.

LISTEN! We’re building little humans here, one interaction at a time. 

Reaction Time and Space

In both scenarios, there was less than 2-seconds allotted for the child’s reaction, even when a direct command was given. “Behave, you’re not behaving, you’re punished for not behaving,” is a common trope among short-tempered caretakers. 

Under the age of 10–12, children are still learning to process language. This means, even if we speak slowly, kindly, and directly, it may take a literal minute for them to be able to fully understand that we’re asking them to react and what that reaction should be. 

If we’re speaking quickly, angrily, with complexity or with nuance, it takes even more time to process and react. Contrary to the beliefs of some, aggressively yelled commands are LESS LIKELY to be followed.

What does ‘behave’ mean to a child? What does ‘listen’ mean? What do we mean, ‘stand quietly next to me, don’t touch anything and when we get back to the car you can play with your toy?’ That’s a lot to process. What are they supposed to do immediately? What are we actually asking and why? Even if the child can follow, is there even a reason to command?

The first child NEVER took his hand off the shopping cart. That child was clearly following instructions that had been given earlier in the day or trained on previous shopping trips. He listened. If he had been instructed to keep his hands at his sides, touch nothing, be still, be invisible, he’d likely try his best at that too. He’s listening, but nothing is actually being asked.

The second child NEVER had a chance to act. He wasn’t listening for the cashier to call them forward, but why should he be? He wasn’t misbehaving by adult standards. He was standing still and not moving as directed. The assumption that he should grow up, or that he’s done something wrong — it’s damaging. He’s listening, and he had no way to succeed in this scenario. 

The more aggressively we respond to children, the more reserved they become in their reactions. It isn’t their responsibility to change the cycle.

Emotions Speak Louder than Words

While empathy is cognitively developing, for most kids, absorbing emotional affect is automatic. (For neurodiverse kids, this skill may develop later if at all.) 

So for most kids, no matter what WORDS they’re hearing, the accompanying EMOTION is translating more quickly. This is why reacting to a baby’s fall can bring tears or laughter — they respond to our affect in real time, before their own pain or pressure signals. Our reaction shows them how to interpret their internal signaling.

Until kids develop a clear sense of self in their preteen to teen years, they pick up and emote whatever the strongest influence in their current sphere is emoting — stress or elation, negativity or positivity. The assumption is often that once a kid can talk about how he feels, he’s capable of operating and interpreting his feelings independently all the time. Kids with verbal skills haven’t lost the tendency that babies have, to pair internal signals with an adults’ affect, but adults forget how powerful their affect can be.

If we are angry, upset, stressed, or otherwise not in a good way, kids are predisposed to mirroring that emotion. If we ignore them, kids are more likely to ignore us. If we approach with kindness and attentiveness, however, kids quickly turn it around. They’re natural mirrors. They can be expected to be as engaged or disengaged as the people who have the strongest influence over them. 

Photo by Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels.com

What are we actually asking?

Stand here. Don’t touch anything. Walk this line. Don’t speak. Answer questions when I ask them. Move when I move. Keep your eyes forward. Stop asking questions. Stop your childlike sense of wonder and curiosity. Stop your imagination. Don’t play. Be a human doll until I ask you to respond, and then do as you’re trained, like a pet. 

This is what I hear when I hear adults say “You’re not listening.” 

Because “not listening” seems to entail a boatload of directions that kids are meant to intuit, deduce from the environment, or otherwise KNOW. 

For a kid to respond the way we’re hoping, we need to be clear, concise, calm, and compassionate. They haven’t learned the rules yet, but they are mostly hoping we’ll teach them. They WANT to do well. They just can’t intuit what you mean when you tell them they’re failing.

Realistic Expectations

We also need to get back to basics on what we expect from children at various ages and stages.

Can this kid ever stand totally still? Is that developmentally appropriate for a kid his age? 

Do we really want this kid to stop asking us questions? For how long? 

Is this kid, for the most part, being self-guided and following the expected rules? 

What do we really need this kid to do, right now? If they continue to play with their toy without causing too much of a stir, is that enough? 

Are we accounting for how loud, how bright, how distracting, how bustling, how much is going on at this store? Do we remember how fun or how stressful it was to be in a new place when we spent most of your time inside the same 3 places? Is it fair to request more of a kid who is striving to understand, interpret, interact, behave, and take it all in?

We need to choose our battles and maintain realistic expectations based on past behavior, developmental ability, and the environment we’re in. 

Path to Success

The best that we can do for kids is to set them up to succeed more often than we chastise them for failing. A confident, happy kid is more attentive and capable than a sad, self-conscious one. If setting them up for success is not viable, distracting them is better than getting upset. Here are some examples of things that could have been said in the given scenarios:

“Please play with your toy on the shopping cart. The scanner needs to be left alone.”

“I need your help counting all of the items that I put into this bag.

“You’ve kept your hands on the cart the whole time — that’s great! Can you keep your dinosaur on the cart too?” 

“I’m having a stressful day. Please keep listening for my directions. Thank you for helping me shop.”

“Please stay by my side and hold onto my shirt. You’ve been pretty close to me, but it would be better if you would stay closer.” 

“I love when you ask me questions, but I have a headache and can’t answer your questions now. If you remember, ask me later on.”

“When we’re in a store like this one, we need to pay really close attention to each other. Please follow my directions and stay close enough to touch me. I know I can depend on you to follow my directions. You are a great listener.”

“Can you count how many pieces of candy you can see? How many shoes? How many bottles of water? 

“Can you say the ABCs for me while I finish this transaction?” 

“When we leave the store, I’m going to ask you to name three of your favorite movies. Think about them now, and when I ask later, you can tell me about them.” 

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Every Interaction Guides Them

Kids learn and adapt quickly. The exceedingly neuroplastic nature of their brains makes rapid development possible, and also makes them sponges for change. 

If we find ourselves setting a poor tone, we are only an interaction or two away from fixing it, especially with very young ones. They look to us for guidance. We show them how to be. Should they communicate their needs or bark commands? Should they ask for help or demand it? Should they expect the impossible of those around them? They’ll only know how to do as we do.

If we’re able to objectively view ourselves and alter our own behavior, we help them develop in the ways we intend. We create a brighter world full of more empathetic, communicative, attentive individuals with self-awareness and emotional range. Isn’t that what we’re all striving for? 

Please, Stop Asking Kids this One Question

By asking, you may be inadvertently creating a situation for your child that the question is intended to avoid. 

[This entry is informed by formal education and clinical experience. An earlier version of this entry appeared on the Kid Lit Motivates Resource Blog.]

[TLDR: For the Quick Summary, please scroll to the Summary heading.] 

Read on for the explanation. 

Every parent I’ve ever met wants the best for their kid and parenting is a nonstop job. Parents work long hours, have big hearts, and push their kids to have the very best quality of life they can imagine. While working in-home with autistic kids, I always integrated family members into our sessions — they’d provide support long after I’d gone home for the night. I used my experience and training to give families the building blocks to strengthen their family ties and grow together. 

The adage is true; It takes a village


So now, it is with the best of intentions and my sincerest appreciation for our shared responsibilities that I bring something to your attention: 

There is one question we need to stop asking.

I hear The Question so frequently that I honestly wonder about its ubiquity. How did we, as a culture, land on this one question as a means to an end? 

It’s a simple and well-intentioned question that steps on its own toes, so to speak. It gets in its own way. Bites its own tongue. Circular reasons itself out of meaningfulness. Causes exactly what it’s attempting to prevent. 

In real time, I’m powerless to stop it from being asked. The Question, this one small, well-meant colloquial adult-asks-kid scenario is so annoyingly antithetical to its purpose that I’m dedicating an entire entry to it (one that has been cut down from near-6k words.) It has the opposite effect for which it is meant. It reinforces the behavior intended to be changed. 

 How is the question raised?

Setting the Scene — Scenario

Jo and I are sitting at their dining room table. Jo is 10 years old, loves to play soccer, use metallic ink pens, and is intensely passionate about narrow interests. They have been diagnosed with co-morbid learning and communication delays. I visit their house several times a week, for a few hours at a time as a “tutor” and I “teach” social skills.

To this end, I use mirroring and modeling techniques, based on the iso-principle, to artificially match their energy and affect for pairing in the relationship. (Over time, I’ll use the technique less.) For now, it helps create a friendly foundation on which to build a learning environment. It also lets me briefly assess and evaluate the appropriate direction for today’s session in particular. There are many potential activities for us, but it’s Jo’s engagement that guides the choice. The session COULD be wacky and wildly energetic, replete with games, songs, and stories. Or, like today, it could be a quiet and reserved approach. 

Opening Lines — The Lead Up

Jo is not making eye contact, their hands are down, and their shoulders are drooping. After knowing Jo a few months, I’ve come to expect the ebb and flow (aka dysregulation) of Jo’s emotions and I’ve consistently encouraged them to do what feels comfortable in any given moment.

Jo has unique social and communication needs. They‘re learning how to speak with people (not at them), how to empathize with others, and how to create friendships from incidental connections. They will practice with me, in routine and naturalistic ways, small skills that add up to big strides with me and then slowly generalized to others. My responsibility is to present the complexity of skills into easily manageable, repeatable, and quantifiable behaviors, then guide them to chain the skills together in useful, less mechanistic ways. I don’t expect Jo to learn all of these skills at once. For today, it’s okay if they can’t make eye contact. It’s okay if we sit quietly together for a few minutes without speaking, if they cannot return my greeting, or if they cannot respond to any question I ask. These are the most important skills I’m hoping to model, and we have all of our time together to practice them.

Even if Jo and I have achieved a richly engaging conversation in the past, I don’t anticipate or push for one. Jo is growing their understanding of back-and-forth social exchanges. In the meantime, I know through experience that there’s no sense in forcing them to interact. Over time, I’ll use reinforcement, repetition, role play, singing, game play, and other techniques, to teach this complex task which comes naturally to some, but not so to others.  

Enter Mom and the Question of the Ages

Le had greeted me at the door and shown me into the room where Jo waits. She stands in the doorway as Jo and I take our places at the table, hovering expectantly as many moms do. After a beat, she begins shifting her weight uncomfortably as she recognizes what I’ve mentioned: Jo’s disengagement. 

Le’s main goal for having me here is to enhance Jo’s communication abilities and the quality of their social interactions. She wants them to make friends more easily. She is very eager to see them communicate with others the way they only seem to communicate with her. Jo CAN talk, after all, but they sometimes struggle to speak genuinely with anyone other than Le. She’s concerned about their daily interactions, especially with adolescence on the horizon. I’ve done my best to educate Le to moderate her expectations. Her relationship with them will always be unique. They are actually very typical for a neurodivergent kid. These skills can take time, and it’s time we must all be ready for.

Let’s Begin — Jo and Me (and apparently, Le)

While I stack my notebooks and pull out my metallic pens, I can sense Le’s discomfort and anticipation. Jo may sense it too. It’s not helping Jo in the slightest. 

I model for Le while also seeking Jo’s engagement. I prompt Jo, softly, patiently. 

How was your day, Jo? 

Good, Jo continues looking at their lap. 

What would you like to talk about?

No response. 

I did something fun today. 

No response. 

Can I tell you about my fun day? 

They shrug. 

 In my head, I’m figuring out the path for this session. I’m using questions to provide opportunities. I’m evaluating the day’s objectives, informed by the overall communication goal and the presenting affect. Given their reserved responses, I’m planning to move to a medium with less conversation, like a worksheet, a music intervention, or a game. It will take the spotlight pressure off.

Jo turns to see Le hovering in the corner by the door. They look up at her, avoiding my gaze completely. (They are nonverbally seeking assistance.) Seeing their head turn, in the way of most well-meaning parents, Le rushes to Jo’s aid and inadvertently asks the most nonfunctional yet somehow pervasive question.

I try and signal Le not to speak, knowing the question is coming, but without rudely cutting her off, there’s nothing I can do. I silently observe Le as she, with the best intentions, reinforces Jo’s communication strife.

The Question that Answers Itself

“Did you tell Lori about … ?” Le prompts.

It’s a common phrasing. Meaningless in this situation, yet we use it regularly. It’s an error that sets my teeth on edge. It does nothing to help the child break out of their shell or learn appropriate interactions. It doesn’t enhance the therapeutic relationship. It doesn’t model natural conversation and it doesn’t encourage social exploration. But, as I’ve said, Le’s mistake is a mistake we all make from time to time with kids. Le already knows the answer, and Jo knows she knows. 

You Already Know 

Whatever follows the question doesn’t matter.

Did you tell Lori about the field trip you went on yesterday?

Did you tell Grandma what happened over the weekend?

Did you tell your friend where we went after football practice? 

Did you tell your teacher about your new shoes?

Did you tell [person][event/thing/action]?

And so on. 

Varying Responses with Only One Result

Did you tell Lori about the field trip?

 Jo, like most kids, responds by sitting quietly without responding. Jo, in a difficult moment, has successfully passed the communication reins to Le, and will now have Le lead the conversation. 

Jo looks self-conscious. The thing they didn’t mention is red ink on the page. Jo hasn’t said anything at all, their mom knows it, and yet, their mom has put them in a situation to either say “no” or not respond at all. The question does not open a line of dialog — it creates an end point. 

To incorporate the framing of the question, I turn my body toward her saying something to the effect of, “Jo will tell me when they’re ready,” and then turn back to Jo and ask a direct, potentially related, question. Whatever I ask will be open-ended enough to allow Jo the agency of responding, as Le has already removed the agency of choosing a subject. I might ask something like: 

Jo, where did you go on your field trip?

Who was on the field trip with you? 

Did you take a bus with your class, or ride in a car? 

Unfortunately for Jo, Le feels tired of Jo not responding, and wants to show them what to do. Before I can leave space and ask Jo a direct question, Le jumps in again: 

 You went to the museum, right? Tell Lori about the museum, and what your teacher said.” 

In every case that I’ve seen using the “Did you tell…” framing followed by an additional piece of information, every kid, just like Jo, repeats back whatever was said and falls silent again. Jo: 

We went to a museum.

This isn’t a natural conversation, and Jo doesn’t even have a starring role in it. I can ask whatever I want now, Jo will likely only shrug or look back to Le. Over time, Jo and Le have adapted this likely unconscious routine, where Jo has difficulty initiating, Le fills in the blanks, and Jo parrots back a response enough to appease me, or any adult Jo is expected to talk to. 

An Easy Mistake with Lasting Consequences

In an effort to persuade Jo to begin talking, Le is fabricating a situation for them to rely on another person to start talking. 

In this instance, Le is not teaching them to speak. She is speaking for Jo in a somewhat condescending way. Perhaps Jo doesn’t want to discuss the field trip with me, or perhaps there’s something else on their mind. Maybe they were waiting on a better time to bring it up, or maybe they just didn’t want to talk at all. Le has removed Jo’s agency, likely in response to their own discomfort with our mutual silence.

It’s completely well-intentioned. It’s also detrimental. Le may be the person who saves her friends from awkward conversations at cocktail parties, but her child is also relying heavily on her to do so every day. 

If you’re not sure why “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” is bad, here are 4 glaring issues I’ve seen in practice. 

1. “You KNOW I didn’t”

“Did you tell…?” No, and you know it! Le knows Jo has not told me this story, she’s been standing there the whole time! In no way does this resemble a natural, conversational style. Issue 1: Modeling Unnatural Interaction 

2. Insinuating “You should/could have mentioned…”

“Did you tell…?” In natural conversational style, the way most of us would respond to being asked this question would be to say “No I didn’t tell…” followed by actually telling or giving a reason why we haven’t told yet. 

Jo doesn’t have a natural conversational style; it’s why they’re working with me. By asking this, Le is expecting Jo to have mastered this part of dialog we take for granted, insinuating they should have mentioned the thing, and holding Jo to a test they can likely at this stage only fail. Issue 2: Setting the Bar Too High While Simultaneously Acknowledging It’s Unreached

3. “Don’t put me on the spot!” 

The self-awareness required to answer the question correctly is almost always accompanied by feelings of shyness, discomfort, or poor self-esteem. Le put Jo on the spot to discuss something they picked, and does so repeatedly on a regular basis. After this interaction with me, Jo typically lashes out in anger, at agreed upon boundaries or at themselves.

“Did you tell…?”

“Man, why didn’t I think of telling them about that?” or “I didn’t want to mention that — but now I guess we have to talk about it.”

Issue 3: Creating Feelings of Inadequacy or Poor Self-Esteem

4. “What do I do now?” 

“Did you tell…?” is a prompt that reinforces the dependent relationship, and the more it’s used, the more deeply it’s entrenched in their interactions. Jo will wait to be prompted by Le to speak, and will rely on Le for the appropriate topic in any given moment. What will Jo do when Le is not around? Perhaps, lead the conversation alone, but in my experience, if this is a routine occurrence, Jo will clam up or wait to be directed when Le is not around. And who will Jo take prompts from? Potentially, anyone. Issue 4: Conditioning Unwanted Behavior

Show, Don’t Tell

Every adult who interacts with Jo has a responsibility to model natural conversation, so that Jo is able to begin to implement what they learn in our sessions. If Le feels like she must jump in, she can say to me, “Jo went on a field trip today. Maybe they’ll tell you about that when they’re ready.”  

Jo’s responsibility is to communicate to the best of their ability, whatever that may be today. They do not need to make me feel comfortable, to act outside of their nature perform for me. They may or may not be aware that communication is even expected, which is completely and totally okay. 

It’s my responsibility to show and not tell how I start conversations, what topics are good jumping-off points, and the mechanisms by which our language is figurative, inferential, casual, and anticipatory.

Recapping the Question Not to Ask

When asking “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” you are inadvertently and with the best of intentions: 

  1. Modeling an Unnatural Communication Style
  2. Setting an Unnecessary, yet Unintended, High Expectation
  3. Putting a Spotlight on an Uncomfortable Moment
  4. Conditioning Dependence in Social Settings

An Addendum for Minimally Verbal Children

“Minimally Verbal”, or occasionally “Nonverbal”, is the descriptive term therapists use for those who use functional language minimally (if at all).

The Question is Still Problematic

For the minimally verbal, “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” is potentially even more detrimental. For functionally verbal children like Jo, the question is problematic for all the reasons listed above. For minimally verbal children with difficulties processing or understanding language, the question reinforces the wrong idea. In this instance, following

Did you tell Lori we went to the park?

 will frequently be answered with either an incorrect answer or an echo.

Did you tell Lori we went to the park? “Yes.” No, you didn’t. Tell Lori we went to the park. 

Did you tell Lori we went to the park? “the Park.” 

The responses are not functional. The child doesn’t understand what is being asked. In most cases, parents then respond positively — 

 “The park.” “Yes! That’s right! We went to the park!”

Functionally, the child sees a happy parent and hears praise. The child will now be conditioned to respond the same way following each “Did you” question. 

Did you eat lunch? “Yes. Eat lunch.” 

Did you eat gorilla for lunch? “Yes.” 

Did the lunch person help you with your lunchbox? “Lunchbox.” 

Did you know you forgot your lunch? “Yes.” But did they know? 

It is truly amazing to watch as minimally verbal children begin to process language with more specific intervention. For some, with exposure to more concise and deliberate language patterns, start they begin to parse through sentence structure and notice jokes, inference, etc. Did you eat gorilla for lunch? “Yes………Noooooo….” Their faces light up with an inkling of confidence and a dawning of understanding. Not everyone will get to this point of understanding, however. 

If you believe a minimally verbal child is either repeating the last word or responding yes or no without truly understanding to a Did you question, remove the prompt from your vocabulary until the child has more of an understanding of Yes/No, Present/Past, and until “You did, You didn’t” is more readily understood.

Other Suggestions for Avoiding the “Did You” Question

  1. Give the therapist or teacher a head’s up. Prior to the session, email/call/text, out of the child’s earshot, and give the details about the child’s day. A good therapist will hear that a child was excited to buy new shoes and will guide the conversation naturally in that direction to allow the child the opportunity for success — if they want to, are able to, and feel comfortable doing so.
  2. Write it down with your child! For children with communication deficits, a small bullet journal of potential conversation topics can go a long way. Each night, have the child think back to what was notable about the day — trips, events, funny moments, fights, whatever they might want to talk about. Write a small reminder for each, or draw a small picture, and then get in the habit of having that book available during the session and beyond. The act of reflecting on a regular basis will help the child to understand what is expected when someone asks “What did you do today?” or “What do you want to talk about?” 
  3. If you feel you must prompt, then change up the question. Give a gentle verbal reminder that does not begin with “Did you tell…” There are a lot of ways to do this. Use names and speak plainly so it is clear who is talking to who and ask questions that lead in a specific, but open direction, rather than yes/no. 

Lori, yesterday Jo and I went shopping.

Jo, Lori wants to hear about your new shoes.

Lori, you have GOT to hear about this. Jo, tell Lori about our trip to the mall.

Jo, it looks like Lori is wearing new sneakers — you and Lori have that in common. What can you ask her about her sneakers? 

These prompts aren’t ideal because they still create boundaries to Jo developing their own natural conversational style, but these prompts are infinitely better than the defeating “did you” prompt.

4. Simply, let it go. That’s right. Just let it go. Let the therapist work. Let the child make progress. Let the moment proceed all on its own. Let everyone sit in what is perceived to be an uncomfortable silence. What made your child excited yesterday, may currently not have the same effect. It was a special moment for the two of you, but not necessarily something to talk about. Perhaps once the session is over, the child will point out that special thing, or wait for the therapist to notice. 

If there’s no way to prompt the therapist privately or prompt your child in an open-ended manner, ask yourself — how necessary is my intervention in this moment? Can I let this go? Typically, yes, yes you can.

Summary

  1. Prompting a child with the question “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” is not a functional conversation starter. 
  2. It may actually be creating a major problem in the child’s developing communication skills. 
  3. By asking the question “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” you may be: 
  • Modeling an Unnatural Communication Style
  • Setting an Unnecessary, yet Unintended, High Expectation
  • Putting a Spotlight on an Uncomfortable Moment
  • Conditioning Dependence in Social Settings

4. Instead, replace “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” try: 

  • Contact the people the child is going to be talking to ahead of time, so they know what to ask about directly.
  • Help the child keep a bulleted or pictorial reflection journal as a conversational assistant.
  • Use a gentle, different verbal reminder, and be open to the child’s answer even if it isn’t on your intended topic.
  • Let the topic go. 

No promises, but…

Jo is a special kid. They’re gifted in their own way. Sometimes they’re quiet, sometimes very engaging. You may not even know what they are capable of. If you let them develop without prodding, you’ll be amazed at the potential they have. Trust me when I tell you, it will be worth the wait when you hear him learn new skills, gain confidence, and begin to engage others with ease. 

I would love to hear your comments, questions, additions, or anecdotes.

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Reflective Optimism Post-Quarantine

The great quarantine of 2020(1) brought a lot of changes, realizations, and confrontations for us all. Like most, my world was turned upside down, my plans were canceled, and all of my momentum screeched to a halt.

My partner and I lost our jobs fairly early in the year. We each had significant personal health crises, made harder to treat in light of distancing restrictions at doctors’ offices and hospitals. Both of our cars became unusable metal heaps, and we lost a third when my partner flipped our Subaru less than a month after we signed on the dotted line. It would take months to scrounge up another down payment using our relief checks and unemployment money to buy another Subaru, and when we did, we found out we had paid $8,000 too much for the first. It was a year of limit finding and testing, financially, medically, and emotionally.

There was also a lot of love in 2020(1). My partner proposed marriage in a fit of optimism, and we got engaged and moved in together (in a family-owned house). We began caring for an extended family of stray cats that lived on the property, when the shelter “for COVID reasons” wouldn’t perform any spaying or neutering. One stray kitten from the clowder collapsed on our doorstep, undernourished and blind from infection. We brought him to the emergency vet and chose to adopt him after he survived several surgeries, including the removal of his right eye. Suddenly, where there had only been my elder cat Kitty and me, there was now a family of four inside and seven outside to feed, clean, train, manage, support and cuddle (indoor only, outdoor cats are not cuddly). 

My partner and I developed routines around their lives and became eager cat parents, wondering how they were when we were out on a hike, checking on them in the night. For the first time in our lives, we were building a family. That meant we needed to talk about domestic responsibilities, shared financial planning, technological disputes, parenting-adjacent perspectives, and matters of privacy and space. 

We are not the only millennial couple drifting without oars or star charts across an engaging, enraging, intertwining sea. The Pew Research Center found that millennials are waiting to start families, longer than any other generation, and more than 50% are living with family members — more than any previous generation. We’re waiting to get married, waiting to have kids, waiting to cobble together a down payment for property we’re waiting to afford. 

I’ve read countless accounts of other late-20s-30-somethings aiming for adulthood, which lies presumably just over the horizon and just out of reach. True adulthood is marked by many of us as the establishment of our own family units in independently managed residences. These are things we came to value by observing generations prior and seeking to follow in their footsteps, in an increasingly impossible scape. We experienced our seminal years around the tragedy of 9/11 and subsequent shift. We graduated into the 2008 recession to a job market unresponsive to our increasingly expensive secondary educations. We witnessed the cultural change from a nostalgic, optimistic 90s to a tech-focused, ever-fleeting present.

So many of us are holding on to our plans through illness, unemployment, unforeseen and previously unimaginable stressors, and the kindness of extended family. Depression and anxiety reign in our minds. Some day, some day soon, some day down the line, maybe we’ll be able to begin getting started on trying to achieve our dreams.

My partner and I are perhaps more fortunate than some. I trained as a therapist and my partner is a scientist. Like many others, we passed the quarantine with screens — sitcoms, horrors, ebooks, game shows, reality competitions, the more fantastic the better. We traversed every available trail in our local area and befriended the wildlife, in lieu of company. We stayed glued to the news of the day. We raised a kitten, a first for us both. We are also both terribly self-aware and our communication is blessedly direct and empathic. We communicated through quarantine as well as could be expected as we developed the beginnings of our family. We debated, quarreled, rolled our eyes, ironed out arising conflicts, offered time and gave space when one or both of us felt heated. He struggled with my need to stay busy, while I wrestled with his desire to stay put. 

In the long run, I’m sure we’ll look back at these days and feel grateful that circumstance gave us the opportunity. At this writing, I have just begun work at a new place in a new field and the Scientist has a few job offers to consider as well. We’ve replaced our 2, rather 3, vehicles with a single, fuel-efficient, cargo-friendly, trekking one. We talk often about our next steps to moving up and out and on, and look hopefully to the day when some normalcy returns to us all. 

Maybe, just maybe, one of these days, after all is said and done, we’ll get to be independent adults like we’ve always imagined. Until then, we have the cats to keep us distracted and motivated, our growing family of 2 + 2.