It’s Not All Mary Poppins

On Asking Questions

Asking questions of your toddler is a delicate art. There are times when it’s a good thing: “Would you like your red shirt, or your blue one?” “Shall we go to the library today, or should we invite Suzie over to play?” Giving your child some control over a largely arbitrary world is a good thing. Teaching him to make simple decisions — and to stick to them! — is also good. (“No, you decided to go to the library today. We can invite Suzie over another day.”) All good.

There are, however, some questions you shouldn’t ask: “Do you want to put your boots on?” when it’s twenty below. That’s not optional. Why present it as if it is?

The worst manifestation of this pattern: You have something you want them to do, but you present it as a question. “Do you want to come with mommy to the store? No? Well, you can’t stay here by yourself!!”

If “no” wasn’t an option, then why ask?

The latter two are foolish and self-defeating. If your child is two, the answer to almost any question is sure to be a negative. Having presented the opportunity to say no, you’re now stuck with it. Instead of just getting the boots on, or heading to the store, you now have to negotiate (good luck with that) or override the child’s stated preferences. Which you just asked for, remember? Who wouldn’t be indignant?

Those habitual, reflexive questions! A bad parental habit, and we need to get out of it!

It’s a habit based in good intentions, of course. Issuing orders seems so arbitrary. Rude. Dictatorial, even.

But really, if you want to see ‘dictatorial’ in action, just let your two-year-old have free rein with the day’s plans and activities. Not a good thing.

It is okay to issue orders and directives. More than that, it’s required. You are the parent. That is part of the job. Far too many parents out there feel apologetic for being the boss. Well, it’s either you or the two-year-old.

Of course, you do it respectfully. Which is where many parents stumble, assuming that ‘respect’ looks the same when applied to toddlers as to adults. It doesn’t.

“I wouldn’t like to be told what to wear, how to play, to have every movement monitored and directed.” True. But then, you’re not likely to choose to wear your swimsuit outdoors in sub-zero temperatures, try to shove raisins up the dog’s nose, or bite people who disagree with you. (Tempting though that latter may be, some days…)

For peace in the home, eradicate habitual “Would you like” and “Do you want to” from your vocabulary. Say them when you mean them, sure. Say them when you really do want to give your child a choice. But for heaven’s sakes don’t say them when “no” isn’t an option.

Instead, substitute the cheerful directive. “Let’s get those mittens on you!” “Time for your bath!” “Let’s get ready to go to the store!” “Up in the highchair, little man!”

You will spare yourself a world of conflict, side-step a mountain of power struggles. Peace in the home is within your grasp. Really.

January 25, 2011 - Posted by | parenting, power struggle


  1. I swear I’m not one of those childless people who thinks they have parenting figured out, but I’ve seen so many people make this mistake and it just seems like commen sense that you don’t give your toddler a chance to say no!

    Comment by June | January 25, 2011 | Reply

  2. I hate when I fall into this! It’s like the words slip out of my mouth and then I can’t pull them back.

    Comment by Dani | January 25, 2011 | Reply

    • That’s when I tack on “or would you like mama to do it?” onto the end of “would you like to put your boots on now?”

      Comment by Trish Cross | January 25, 2011 | Reply

  3. Yes, my husband has taken me to task on this one. For me it’s the “could you” phrasing. Still, “could you run get me a clean onesie, a full container of wipes and a hazmat bag” doesn’t really sound like a question to me.

    Comment by katkins | January 25, 2011 | Reply

    • That is probably because you are not two! Or four… the four year old I look after is definitely in a no phase still and even when it’s not a question she still says no. It’s hard not to fall into the question habit despite knowing better.

      Comment by May | January 25, 2011 | Reply

      • …or thirty? I was actually thinking of my dear husband. πŸ™‚

        Pfft. He’s just playing semantics in order to avoid doing stuff. The grown-up version of the toddler negativity. πŸ˜›

        Comment by katkins | January 25, 2011

  4. We’ve actually stumbled upon a workaround to the answer No. My daughter, C, is 20 months old, here’s a replay of a conversation she had with her daddy last week:

    Daddy: C, would you like some cheese?
    C: no!
    Daddy: say ‘yes’ if you want some cheese
    C: yes!!

    This technique is working out quite well for us for things we ask that are really in fact her option. She’ll say no again sometimes, but not very often.

    Good thought, and I’ll bet it works like a charm. I confess I was more wicked with my own. Our conversation went like this:
    Me: Sarah, would you like this cookie?”
    S: No!
    Me: Okay! (And pop it immediately into my mouth.)
    S: AAAAAaaaa!
    Me: (Look of innocent astonishment) You SAID no.

    This worked pretty charmishly, too. πŸ˜€

    Comment by Sherry H. | January 25, 2011 | Reply

  5. And don’t make the mistake of saying, “Time to get your boots on, okay?” because that “okay?” there is an invitation for a “NOOOOOO!!!!!”

    I’m long out of the toddler phase but I work at my kids’ Taekwondo center and I see parents with their threes and fours and I just want to pull some of them aside and tell them they’re digging their own holes, you know?

    I do, indeed. ‘Digging their own holes’ is exactly what it is.

    Comment by Candace | January 27, 2011 | Reply

  6. I was just telling a friend this a few weeks ago. I think I’ll just bookmark this and send everyone here. Thanks πŸ™‚

    You’re welcome. I know I’ve gone on about this before, but it’s such a common parenting pattern, it bears repeating.

    Comment by carrien (she laughs at the days) | February 1, 2011 | Reply

  7. […] or four years of life, establishing your role as authority in the child’s life is one of your primary parenting job. You do that all sorts of ways: by caring for their physical needs, by being emotionally available […]

    Pingback by Power Struggles « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | January 17, 2013 | Reply

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