On Expecting the Expected when Dealing with a Wolf
As a former teacher and therapist, I often found myself in need of a relatable allegory to teach complex aspects of humanity, and the complicated ways we interact, to children. Fables are a natural starting place, but the imagery and animalistic parallels are not as easily understood as they once were. The Modern Retellings series is attempting to change that.
Adapted from Aesop’s The Wolf and the Lamb may this retelling, in 2 minutes or less, enable a conversation to explain that wolves will be wolves, despite what they may say. After the story, read the moral of Aesop’s fable as I interpret it, use the discussion questions to lead a conversation about the symbolic parallels, make connections to daily life, and get a glimpse of the inspiration behind the Modern Retellings series.
Modern Retellings for Everyday Life
 Aesop’s Fable: The Wolf and the Lamb
For a hardworking and caring person, the hardest lesson is learning that others may not be.
The Wolf of the Workplace
(in 2 minutes or less)
T was hired to work as a graphic designer for a big company and was excited to do whatever was necessary to succeed. T worked long hours in the office cubicle, submitting work files by email to M, the floor supervisor. T had never spoken to M, and that was okay because M was quick to anger and known to fire new employees for no reason at all.
After 4 weeks of handing in designs and following client briefs, M stormed into T’s cubicle. M was angry because T hadn’t asked for help completing any project and deemed T too new at graphic design to be working alone. M cautioned T that the job was at-will, meaning anyone could be fired anytime for any reason. T heard the message loud and clear.
T was fearful about losing the job, and nervous about being yelled at again, so they changed their approach to suit M. Every time a new client project was assigned, T immediately asked an experienced coworker how to complete the project. Each project took twice as long to complete, but T doing what M asked.
Two weeks after the first visit, M returned to T’s desk. Now, M was angry about T being away from the cubicle too often, bothering coworkers, and relying too heavily on the assistance of others. M said the completed work looked like the copied work of other designers, and that if T did not change tactics, they would be fired.
T was determined to get it right and to please M. In the next week, T balanced artistic vision with help from others. T took each client project, created a first draft, and then emailed coworkers to ask for feedback if they had time and were willing. This way, T couldn’t be accused of stealing work from others or accused of being too new to work alone. T felt the clients and M would be happy with the new strategy.
On the following Monday, T was summoned to M’s office. M angrily explained that no designer should be as flexible as T, that the company didn’t want a designer who was easy to push around. It made no sense to T, because they had done exactly what was asked and they were a skilled graphic designer. T was told to clean out their cubicle and go home. They were fired. M was a terrible supervisor with a mean streak and a bad attitude, and T was glad to be leaving.
A hungry, trickster wolf may appear to be trying to save the lamb from being eaten, but expect that wolf to eat that lamb, no matter what they say or do.
Family Discussion Questions
Use these questions to help lead a conversation about the fable and its intended meaning.
In the story of T and M, who is the lamb and who is the wolf? How do you know?
What did “the wolf” want, before “the lamb” even began to work at the company?
What does “eating the lamb” actually symbolize in the workplace?
Could “the lamb” have done anything to keep working there?
If you were “the lamb”, how would you feel after dealing with “the wolf” boss?
T is the lamb. M is the wolf. M is in control and threatening T’s job, and T is trying to please their boss M.
“The Wolf” is known to get angry and fire employees for no reason. M creates a fearful office environment. M wants employees to be afraid and doesn’t seem to care about the design work at all.
“Eating the lamb” symbolizes “firing a new employee, T” in this story.
T could not have done anything to change M’s actions, and likely no change to T’s work would have been acceptable to M. But, in the modern workplace, there are other ways to deal with a difficult boss, and depending on the level of comprehension, the conversation can lead in this direction.
There are no wrong answers. Examples might be: Sad or happy to be fired. Scared or nervous of the boss’ anger. Angry at being yelled at for no good reason or for not having hard work recognized.
Wolves in Our Daily Lives
It has taken me nearly three decades to learn that my choices are my own, and I cannot choose for another what they will not choose for themselves. As a child, I was eager to please every person with whom I connected, and that led to a lot of difficult situations surrounding the expectations of others and the expectations I had for myself. Not everyone would be a friend. Not everyone would be acting rationally, morally, or in a justifiable way. No amount of helping, teaching, explaining, or placating could mollify the wolfish way.
Sometimes people will ask the impossible to test boundaries or cause damage. Sometimes people will ask others to bend over backwards just to watch them break in half. Sometimes people sense a person’s weakness and immediately wish to exploit it, rather than adapt to it. Sometimes people choose cruelty over kindness.
For some, this went without saying. For do-gooder, people-pleaser, rationalizing logicians like me, the question of why people act badly towards others was constantly on my mind. I, and others like me, have trouble accepting that we cannot always understand the actions of others, and that people may act irrationally, cruelly, aggressively, and immorally for no reason at all, or for reasons we simply can’t know. If we have done our best, striven to be good, and are still faced with difficulty, we must move forward as best we can, ask for help if we need it, and leave the search for answers behind.
What are your thoughts on Aesop’s The Wolf and The Lamb?
Do you know any lambs or wolves in your life? What qualities do they have? How would you describe them?
Comment below, and with your permission, I may incorporate your thoughts into the next installment of the Modern Retellings series.
This is the 4th part in the Modern Retellings series. Catch up with the series:
Adapted from Aesop’s The Peacock and the Crane, may this retelling, in 2 minutes or less, enable a conversation about value and competition. After the story, see the moral of Aesop’s fable as I interpret it, read on to learn more about the intention of the Modern Retelling series, and share with me your thoughts or fable ideas.
Friendly, Feathered Competition
(in 2-min or less)
J & R had a friendly competition over everything — who could hit the most homeruns, who would get higher grades, who had the better phone . They both wanted to learn how to drive and to have a sporty, fast car, and boasted about who would be driving first. They passed their driving tests on the same day. When J got home with the new license, there was a brand new Crisio Peacock waiting in the driveway! J texted a picture to R right away — victory! No car could beat this! R had also received a car when arriving home from the test — a 2010 Clumper Crane, which would need some work. At school the next day, J bragged to R that the Peacock was so much nicer than the Crane. “It’s brand new, fast and sporty, not like yours!” R replied easily, “A fancy new car is great and all, but your insurance premiums must be super high and you’ll need to pay for high-octane gas. The Peacock also has the worst safety and crash test ratings on the market. My Crane will survive any accident, last me for years, the insurance will cost me almost nothing, and with the money I’m saving, I can customize it, paint it, and really make it my own.” A few weeks later, J drove into the lot with a crumpled bumper and a bruised ego, and was shocked to find that R’s Crane was detailed and gleaming with the best speaker system he’d ever seen.
The Peacock’s feathers may be more brilliant and colorful, but the Crane knows that his dull gray feathers help him soar through the sky while the Peacock must remain on the ground, suffer the mud, and see those beautiful feathers grow dirty.
I suppose I am quite fortunate to have had parents who made dinner table conversation a priority. While a television played in the background, we’d discuss pieces of our days and catch up on topics of interest. I typically found myself in a way to criticize classmates or express exasperation at teachers- I was a bright, attentive kid, but difficult to challenge. How disappointing the world can be when you’re brilliant and bored — I was Sherlock without a case. I’d raise my hands at the table and expound, “Why do they have to do x like this? Wouldn’t it be better to do y instead?” There was no end to the frustration.
At this point, my father, utilizing the Socratic method, would begin asking me to think through decision trees and the potential motivations of others. While I could never be sure why someone had chosen a particular route, I could work out reasonings for deliberate choices that were made. (It wasn’t until much later I realized that not everyone makes deliberate choices. This was a facet of life that I learned from my mother — some of us swim with the current, some against, and some just allow the water to move us along.) This discussion method, Socratic questioning in particular, raised my empathetic awareness and has made me the person I am today.
I encourage you to open a dialog with loved ones. Use the fables as a starting place. Can you create another analogous, more modern adaptation of the Peacock and the Crane? Are there things that you covet that are not necessarily worth what they seem? Is there another fable or moral that stays with you, one that might be worth sharing with others?
What are your thoughts on Aesop’s The Peacock and the Crane?
Is there something you once coveted, but have since realized is not worth the price?
Is there any fable or story that made an impact on your empathy and the way you engage with the world?
Comment below and with your permission, I may incorporate your thoughts into the next installment of the Modern Retellings series.
[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?
I did something fun today.
Can I tell you about my fun day?
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 whathappened 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 fabricatinga 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:
Modeling an Unnatural Communication Style
Setting an Unnecessary, yet Unintended, High Expectation
Putting a Spotlight on an Uncomfortable Moment
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
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.
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?”
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.
Prompting a child with the question “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” is not a functional conversation starter.
It may actually be creating a major problem in the child’s developing communication skills.
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.
Leave a line below or share this post with someone who may benefit.
As a former teacher and therapist, who worked in-home with kids and their families, I primarily assessed social and communication skills. With the support of a team, I facilitated lessons, sessions, and experiences designed to assist in the learning process. The treatment plans for each child were as unique as the children themselves, as were the strategies and methods of structuring sessions. No two sessions, even with the same kid, were ever identical.
When You Teach Kids, They Teach You
There were many things I learned from this work that I intend to share over time, but one lesson remains with me on a daily basis. It informs my incidental interactions with children (and even adults) and has strengthened my own social capital and confidence. It’s a lesson that’s apparent where ever parents interact with their children — shopping in the grocery store, walking through the park, driving in the car, getting ready for bed.
It may sound like a trivial piece of advice. It may seem obvious. However, I can promise, if you dedicate more attention to this one tenet, you will see positive results.
Say what you mean and mean what you say.
I Mean Literally
This was the lesson I repeated to parents again and again- parents who struggled to limit screen time, to hold a firm bedtime rule, to navigate dinner table disagreements, among other difficulties. Say exactly what you mean.
Often the things that seem obvious to adults are not actually obvious at all.
Before I offend anyone, I’m not saying there’s never a time not to tell the truth to kids, or that by speaking literally everything will be different. Modeling what you expect from kids is critical in their development. By being literal, you’re showing them that you expect their words to hold weight too. And awareness of the potential to miscommunicate across a language comprehension divide is huge — and knowing their comprehension level is key. Like so many of us who speak conversationally with kids, what is said, what is meant, and what is heard could be three different truths.
When I worked with kids who struggled with figurative language, autistic children and others, I learned to hone in on phrases that were confusing, vague, or misleading. Some subjects came up in more often than others.
“Just a second, I’ll be right there!” Parent calls out when Child requests help from the other room.
Does Child understand that Parent means actually now, or a minute, a few minutes, ten minutes? Maybe, if this is a constant in the dialogue.
But does the literal clocked time of “a second” in this context shift based on the scenario, time of day, type of request, reigning emotion? Likely.
Will the child use the same technique back at their parent when they’re about to miss the bus, when they’re late to brush their teeth, when they don’t want to stop playing a game, or whenever it feels as if they’re stalling? Definitely.
The parent models. The child follows.
Instead, it is much more effective to be direct and honest as often as possible. Here are some examples:
“I will be there in 2 minutes. Please wait for me downstairs and we can talk then.”
“Dinner is in 13 minutes. In 6 minutes, I’m going to ask you to set the table.”
“YouTube time is limited to 45 minutes today and then I will hold your phone while you put your shoes on.”
Time Awareness is Learned, Not Intuited
Many of the parents I worked with reported that their child had ‘no sense of time’. This wasn’t referring to clock reading (although that is also a typical cause of parental concern), but Time Awareness — the ability to mentally track or estimate a specific amount of time in between two events.
It came up in a lot of “behavioral” situations when parents described their kids’ behavior. For example, they woke up for school, hit snooze, and demanded five more minutes repeatedly. It led to lateness, arguments, unruliness, and general angst. It started the day off poorly and was something of a routine. Now what?
Some kids learned time awareness faster than others. It could be picked up through game play, curiosity, recreational sports, or music play. But not every child learned it at the same speed, if at all. And there were strategies I used to help children learn this critical skill. (I’ll explain those strategies in a later entry.) Suffice it to say, time awareness was something that could be learned. To start, parents should focus on modeling expectation and using direct language.
The change to literal time language will be critical. One success story stands out in my mind.
Jim was a 12-yr-old soccer player and liked to watch videos of kids playing soccer and doing soccer tricks on his phone. Liked to might be an understatement. Watching these and other types of videos was getting in the way of dinnertime, homework, and bedtime routines. Despite his mom’s typical prompting (something like “off the phone, now”), he could not or would not put the phone down.
After working with me (and me teaching his parents), Jim started using more direct language, asking for “3 more minutes” on a video (because he became aware of the time remaining), much to his mom’s delight. Before, Mom would say “Now,” and he would repeat or parrot phrases like “be right there,” “I’m coming,” “just a second,” which had become a refrain that meant nothing literally. One video would play into the next and Jim couldn’t understand that he wasn’t actually ‘right there’ at all. Mom replaced Now with Soon with 5 minutes and at the end of this video, giving more lead time and appropriate prompting, and Jim learned to be much more aware and direct.
Time as a Vague Command
“You’re in time-out until I say so.”
If the child is too young to understand time, this is an arbitrary, flexible, and mostly meaningless statement. When will you say so? Now? Is it over yet? Are we there yet? The child likely complains the entire time, asks to get up, moves around. If there is a lesson to be learned with the time-out, or if it was intended to assist in calming, the focus has shifted entirely to the child demanding to be free and ramping up emotionally in louder ways.
If this was the experience of a time-out, time-outs may not have been effective at all, as some parents communicated to me. If utilized with literalexactness and intention, however, time-outs can be incredibly effective.
Time-Outs Require Practiced, Calm Directions for Calming Results
Instead of until I say so, a better approach to proffer a time-out is:
“It is not okay to [explain undesirable behavior calmly]. Sit -describe location- for -exact time in minutes-, and then time-out will be over and [desired behavior].”
Then set a visible timer — a digital timer, a kitchen timer, a marked analog clock, even an hour glass — and donotrespond to the child until the time frame has passed. If they leave the seat, silently steer them back and reset the timer. Ignore yelling, name-calling, and other verbal time-out demands. (Silence was never requested in the time-out directions. If quiet is an important part of the time-out, and the child is capable of being quiet, make that expectation clear in the directions as well.)
It is vital that the language used to initiate the time-out is delivered calmly and directly. A rule was broken, and there is a measurable consequence to breaking it.
Likely, the first attempt will be like the previous, but with repeated effort on a parent’s part, this can work wonders.
It’s also important to adjust the time given accordingly for the child’s abilities and for the particular misdeed. Depending on the child, sitting for a full 60-seconds might require a lot of focus, and that minute could suffice as a starter time-out. Time-outs should fit the child’s developmental ability, the delivered instruction, and the circumstance of the misbehavior — in that order.
Additionally, some kids are truly not able to sit in time-out, or time-out may not be appropriate, and different tactics and techniques may be required. Consult with a care professional for appropriate alternatives. It is never okay to use physical discipline. Do not ever restrain, spank, or harm a child as a consequence or punishment- research and human decency have shown us how harmful and ineffective those parental choices can be.
Hate & Love
“I really hate my boss for making me work late today.”
Hate is a very strong emotion, especially in a child’s mind, though we use it colloquially in all sorts of situations. It represents the pinnacle of anger and dislike. Unfortunately, unlike on scripted TV, kids don’t usually ask, “Do you really hate your boss?” offering a family-friendly opportunity for the parent to explain more in-depth. Hate becomes a less-than-powerful word, hosting many meanings, when modeled in this way.
Then, when the child is in a class with a teacher who assigns homework, the language erupts forcefully, I hate you, Mx Soandso, and I hate school! While it wasn’t the parent’s intention, they’ve helped pattern their child’s behavior, and now the kid’s relationship to their learning environment suffers as a result.
Exact language is carried with a child into every part of their world.
“I love this show, it’s the best!”
Love is also a strong word, perhaps the strongest of the positive emotions. The people, animals, and objects we LOVE are those we care for and never wish to part from. Some children may understand inherently that when their parents tells them they love them, they love in a different way than when they say theylovetrue crime dramas, but other children may not.
Then the problem may arise like this:
Parent: It’s time to get into bed.
Child: But I LOVE this show.
It gets more complicated when parents insist verbally that their child loves or hates something. Most children have volatile emotions — primarily because their brains are still developing sensory processing, emotional processing, coping patterns, and comprehension structures. A child may seem to hate something one day, but love it the next, and needs the modeled leeway to move freely through these states as they begin to use newly forming reasoning skills. If a child has a strong reaction to a certain toy, love and hate may not really be the issue. Try not to assign a word the child hasn’t used or one emotion may be cross-comprehended as something else entirely.
Take this example from my caseload:
Ray was given a toy truck with flashing lights and loud sounds for her 4th birthday. She had asked for it many times at the store and her Dads wanted her to enjoy it as much as she seemed to want it. She played with the truck a few times and really seemed to enjoy it. Then, a week after her birthday, Dad Bryan offered the truck to her, pressing the button to flash the lights and make the sounds, and Ray began to scream.
Bryan responded with You hate this? I thought you loved this? You love this truck. Then he pressed the buttons again hoping Ray would react differently. Ray became inconsolable. Bryan said, I guess you hate this, then took the toy away, and told Dad Mike that the child hated the toy and started to joke openly around the house about how fickle little Ray was about gifts. In actuality, Ray’s reaction likely had little to do with the toy itself.
Mike understood that Ray’s reactions aren’t always tied to the things we think they are. He told Bryan, Okay, we’ll play with this toy another day, in earshot of Ray. Then Mike left the truck in the toy room and offered something different to Ray, this time a truck without lights or sounds. Mike assumed that Ray’s reaction was not specifically tied to ‘loving’ or ‘hating’ the toy.
Mike was right. The next day, Ray was feverish. The day she hated the truck was the day she was developing an ear infection, with no outward sign. When she recovered, Mike and Bryan offered the truck toy again, and Ray accepted it gleefully, as though the screaming had never happened.
Instead of love and hate for less-than situations, use like and dislike where appropriate, and give reasoning whenever possible.
Shades of preference are best developed early and modeled often.
Instead of loving this show and hating my boss:
“I dislike working late because I miss spending time with you.”
“I like watching this show because …”
In this way, modeling more exact language and more patterned reasoning skills develops a hierarchy of preference. Love and hate should be reserved for the most extreme and literal circumstances.
When it comes to identifying a child’s preference, instead of you love and you hate in assumption, better phrases are:
“It seems you don’t want this truck today.”
“When I talk to you and you don’t answer, I feel sad. It seems that you enjoy your phone, but I love talking with you.”
The language we use is full of exaggerations, allusions, and shades of meaning. The interpretation and comprehension of the words we say varies widely — for cultural, developmental, and personal reasons, among others.
Often, we expect that kids will understand our meaning — catch the drift — read between the lines — and this expectation leads to strife and future miscommunication, often patterned early by parents and repeated later by their children.
Nothing is permanent, however. I’ve seen many times how a willing parent, attending to their exact words, can literally change the relationship they have with their child, reduce angst, and improve communication.
It may take weeks but it is worth the effort for the ones you love and the reactions you hate.