Some languages are harder to learn than others because tone or inflection change the meaning of the word. A friend of ours tells a story about trying to say ‘pardon’ but actually saying ‘cheeseburger.’ Yeah, inflection affects meaning. Take the word ‘okay’ for example. It’s one of those ubiquitous American words that (frustratingly) can serve as an adjective, adverb, interjection, noun, or transitive verb. (Thank you, dictionary.com!) Sometimes we shorten it to ‘ok’ or ‘o.k.’ We even have a hand signal for it (which, by the way, you shouldn’t do if you’re ever in Brazil. It means something totally different there!) Just look at all this:
Okay? = Do I have your permission? Do you mind? Is this agreeable for you?
Okay! = Let’s get started! Sounds great!
(firm ending) = I understand. I hear you. I accept or agree. Yes.
Okay. (dragging on the end) = Fine, not great, acceptable but reluctant.
Pardon me while I now remove my English teacher hat . . . deep breath . . .
‘Okay?’ (as a question) does NOT mean “do what I just told you to do” and yet I hear parents saying it to young children all the time.
Mom: Johnnie honey, don’t stick your finger in the electrical outlet, okay?
Child: [no response]
Mom: Sweetie, I need you to remove your finger from the outlet. Okay?
Child: Mama, I don’t want to. Can’t I just finish this?
What are you trying to say here, Mom (or Dad)? Are you asking for permission to be the parent? Are you giving them permission to agree or disagree? Is the finger-in-the-outlet something they can choose to do or not do? I hope not! Most parents, when they finish their sentences with ‘okay?’, really mean ‘Do you hear me?’ and I get that . . . but I’m not sure the child does. In every other situation, ‘okay?’ means the listener gets to make a choice. Whether it’s an issue of danger or simply the practice of obedience (such as cleaning their rooms), children need to hear your confident authority. Be the parent. They will have plenty of chances to make choices when they are older. For toddlers, preschoolers, and even elementary-age children, communicate with a firm but kind command followed by the expectation of a response. The ‘okay’ should come from their mouths, meaning that they hear and accept what you have said. Save the ‘okay’ question for situations where they really get to make a choice. If the expectation of a response hasn’t been the pattern in your house, it may take a little training. Ideally, it looks like this:
Mom: (firmly but nor forcibly) Johnnie, take your finger out of the electrical outlet now.
Child: [no response]
Mom: (putting down whatever she is doing and giving full attention to the child) Johnnie, I told you to do something. What was it?
Child: I don’t know.
Mom: I told you to take your finger out of the outlet. When I tell you something, I expect a response. I say, ‘Take your finger out,’ and you say what?
Child: Okay, Mama. or Yes, Mama.
Mom: Thank you. Now, what can you play with that is safe?
Notice I said that this is an ideal scenario. It will take some re-training. At first, you may need to finish the command with “Do you hear me?” or “Do you understand?”
I realize that this approach counters those who think a child’s self-esteem is so fragile that it can’t handle a command, but I promise you that speaking this way is actually kinder. Making suggestions to your young child, giving him or her the impression that they can obey or not obey . . . well, that’s just confusing. The parent follows up by getting angry or disciplining the child for disobedience or disrespect. Then, the child is confused because he or she never understood that a command was issued in the first place. Let’s help our children obey by being clear about what is a command and what is up for debate.
Deep breath. Okay! Try it for a week. Just take ‘okay?’ out of your vocabulary and see what happens to your child’s obedience level. Then let me know in the comments below, okay?