The One Word Parents Should Never Say When Disciplining Kids


Fight the urge to ask young children, “OK?” after everything you tell them to do and, experts say, parents will find their kids will respond and actually do what you’re asking, A-OK. (Photo: Getty Images).

It’s just two little letters, but the “OK?” that so many parents are tacking on at the end of everything they say to their young children today makes a big difference in them actually getting the message. 

“We need to leave the park now, OK?” moms and dads say. “Put that down now please, OK?” Sound familiar? I admit, I’ve caught the bug — which seems to make every instruction I give my two young ones a question, when, let’s be clear, it’s not. And now that I’m aware of it, I hear echoes of my frazzled “OK?!” coming from parents everywhere, trying to leave the grocery store and saying goodbye at daycare. The worst part is, it doesn’t work. So why are we all doing it? 

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“As parents, we want to feel like we’re giving kids choices, not dictating to them all the time, because that can feel mean and harsh,” Zero to Three parent coach Claire Lerner tells Yahoo Parenting. “We want to be all loving and do anything that’ll prevent tantrum. And giving kids choices is great, but the fact is, it’s a world of limits and there’s a lot that kids have to learn to do and accept [in order] to be successful in life. What’s really loving is helping kids understand what the expectations are.” 

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Issuing every instruction like a game of “Would You Rather…?” not only leaves the outcome to a preschooler’s whim, it confuses them. “When a mom or dad adds ‘OK?’ at the end of an imperative, command, or directive, it dilutes the power of your message and implies that you are asking your child’s mutual consent,” Beverly Hills psychotherapist and The Self-Aware Parent author Dr. Fran Walfish tells Yahoo Parenting. 

Along the same lines, psychotherapist Amy Morin calls out the faux-helping phrase “Let’s (insert tedious task here),” and confusing up-speak, which can make all instruction sound optional. “Somehow adding, ‘OK?’ at the end of the sentence seems to make the directions a little more polite,” the author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do tells Yahoo Parenting. “And asking questions like, ‘Can you pick up the toys please?’ — or implying that it’s a joint effort by saying something like, ‘Let’s pick up the toys now,’ even though they aren’t planning to help — isn’t any better.” 

Simply be direct and you’ll have a better shot at getting the behavior you expect, including from very young ones. “Even a 2-year-old understands that a question is a choice,” says Lerner. So give kids some useful clarity and issue directions, not multiple-choice questions, when you really just want them to put their crocs in the shoe basket already. 

“Spell out the difference between a ‘direction,’ and a ‘choice,’ by labeling them as such,” she advises. “Charlie needs to put on his coat? Say, ‘Charlie, this is a direction, you need to get your coat.’ And if you’re offering a choice, by all means, tell him, ‘This is a choice. Pick whether you want to first put your toys away or put on your socks.’”

“Kids have so much to figure out, and more clarity can give them more stability so they feel better able to organize their own behavior and their response,” Lerner adds. “When you say, ‘It’s time to give me back the iPad, OK?’ Kids are like, ‘No, not OK. I don’t want to give up the iPad.’ Then when you come back and say, ‘I need that iPad now,’ they’re confused.” 

The more that parents help children understand expectation of them, the easier transitions become because kids know what to expect, she says. “That’s how they learn to get along in the world.” 

Kicking the “OK?” habit doesn’t take long either. “Be consistent,” says Walfish, “and within a week or two you won’t even miss it.” You’ll be too busy, after all, finally getting things done. 

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