Something that I’ve been working on recently is becoming more deliberate in my use of language with Mikey. One of the biggest changes I’ve made is eliminating the use of the word, “Okay.” Have you ever noticed how much parents use this one little word with their small children?
A toddler falls down and adults exclaim, “You’re okay!” A child spills a drink and everyone assures him, “It’s okay!” I watched this happen recently at a social gathering. A little one spilled his glass of water and started crying. When the rounds of, “It’s okay,” started, he started crying harder. His tears were an expression of fright, dismay, surprise and when everyone said it’s okay, his feelings were not being acknowledged.
I’ve decided that if Mikey falls or cries or experiences anything negative, really, I’m not going to tell him it’s okay. I will acknowledge what happened – “You spilled your water.” I’ll acknowledge his feelings – “You’re very upset. That was scary.” But when it comes to things being okay, I’ll let him be the judge of that. Shaking off a fall, the slowing down of tears, a calm, steady breath, these are all ways he can tell me he’s okay.
More than this, though, I’ve eliminated the use of okay as a question. I was guilty of adding this seemingly innocuous little word on to everything. “There’s no hitting, okay?” “It’s time for lunch, okay?” “We’re going home, okay?” When I stopped to think about it, however, it didn’t make sense. When you ask someone, “Okay?” you’re asking for their permission. In all these instances, I didn’t intend to request his permission, I just wanted to assure his comprehension. If I ask Mikey if something’s okay – “Don’t push your brother, okay?” – and he tells me no and pushes again… well, gosh, what a confusing situation I’ve created.
Instead, I’ve started to substituted the word, “Understand.” Suddenly, I had a brand new conversation. Even better, I had a much more cooperative kid. If he ignored or answered no to my question, I could take the time to explain further. If he said yes, I knew he comprehended what I told him without leaving my authority as parent open for question.
It’s been such an important change, but still a hard habit to break. Recently, I decided that being part Mexican probably isn’t all the sun protection my boys need. I purchased a spray-on sunscreen and demonstrated on myself to Mikey. Then, I made the mistake. “I’m going to put it on you, ready?” It wasn’t the ubiquitous okay, but it still left him room to say no to something I considered non-negotiable. And say no, he did. He ran from the room yelling “NOOOO!” as loud as he could.
I was left to remedy the situation I created. I followed him into the next room and knelt down close to him. I apologized to him for asking his permission when I was going to put the sunscreen on whether or not he said no. With the sunscreen in one hand and his arm in the other, I told him, “I know you don’t want to, but I’m going to put this on you now.” He whimpered a little and then giggled as it landed on his arm. “Tickles,” he told me with a small smile. And then he requested that I put it all over his body. “Legs! Face! Neck!”
In the grand scheme of things, I’m sure it seems like such a small exchange. But for me, it was great reinforcement of the power of choosing the right words. My son trusts me implicitly to say what I mean; he responds accordingly. If I am worthy of that trust, then it is my responsibility to choose my words carefully. And if I fall short, as I no doubt will, then I owe it to him to apologize for being unclear. After all, big or small, who doesn’t respect a straight shooter?