About 12 years ago I read a little blurb in a parenting magazine about the one word parents shouldn’t use with their children: the word Okay. I didn’t retain the details of the article but it made sense and I consciously decided not to end my sentences with “Okay?” when speaking to our then one-year-old.
When we tell our children to do, or not do, something, then say, “Okay?” it implies that we are seeking their input or opening an invitation to discussion. If we say, “Johnny, come here,” it is much more effective than, “Johnny, come here, okay?” the simple “okay” gives Johnny a choice we never intended to give him.
In communicating with children, from very young ages, we cannot be ambiguous, we need to be succinct and specific. We’re much more likely to get the results we’re after (good listening is on every parent’s wish list) if we deliver a clear directive: “Do not touch the plant.” Even a pre-walker can understand what his parent wants. He may test you, but repeating the same, concise message with a gentle removal of his hand will teach him that you mean what you say without question.
I think what is really meant in a parent’s mind when adding okay is, “Did you understand me?” or “Got it?” but instead, using okay makes instructions much less definitive and diminishes your parental authority. A direction stated this way, “Please put your shoes in the basket, okay?” isn’t really a direction at all, it’s a suggestion; it grants a child the option to not do what you asked.
Remove the okay and say it out loud, “Please put your shoes in the basket.” Does it sound stronger and more certain? There is no longer any doubt to the child what you want her to do, it’s much more likely to be productive.
I hear parents adding “okay” all the time in daily life, at the grocery store, playground or library: “You can’t have that, okay?” “Time to go, okay?” “Only five books, okay?” It becomes a habitual word, used without thought or mindfulness, and it strips a parent of his/her control and charge of the situation. “Okay?” is asking for consensus or approval when we really don’t mean to give the child an opinion or choice.
As parents, we’re in charge. We can be in charge in a loving, nurturing way, but we’re the parents and we’re not giving suggestions or recommendations, we are actually giving orders. It may sound harsh to some but as parents, we want our children to do what we say, to listen to us, and to do what they’re told, when they’re told.
We’re guiding and teaching and shaping our kids’ interactions with the world. Having children who do what they’re told is also a matter of safety. If a child is running into the parking lot, we’d yell, “STOP!” not “STOP, Okay?” There’s no choice. So why say, “Don’t touch that plug, okay?”
Kids feel more secure and settled knowing what is expected of them and receiving clear limits, boundaries and communication from their parents. If you think you may be a parent who uses “okay” a lot, try it for a day – or take a one week challenge. Stop ending sentences with “okay?” and instead aim to articulate what you want of your child. Let me know what you discover!