A parent has a lot to offer. The question is, will the child accept it? There are many factors that determine the answer to this, including the child’s own unique personality. For instance, some kids are rather stubborn, strong-willed, inflexible or otherwise not open to suggestion. Other children are heavily influenced by another parent, siblings or other outside influences, and the parent’s opinion cannot be heard above the din of these other voices. Will the child accept it?Yet even when internal and external factors pull on the child’s heartstrings, there are things that a parent can do to increase his or her own power of influence.

Natural Tendencies

The first thing to do is to overcome one’s natural tendencies. Parents tend to instruct. All day long, they tell their kids what to do: “It’s time to get up, go brush your teeth, stop fighting with your sister, hurry up and get dressed, remember to make your bed, put your clothes in the laundry hamper, come eat, take your plate off the table . . .” And this is only in the first hour of the day. It goes on throughout the day, the week, the months and the years. It becomes a habit, a natural way of communicating to one’s child.

When a child complains, “I’ve got too much homework!” the parent falls back into this natural mode and simply tells the child what to do: “The sooner you begin, the sooner it will be over, so sit down and get started.” When a child raises an issue, the parent instinctively responds with instructions: “Nobody asks me to do things with them on the weekend” leads to “Well, maybe you should be the one to initiate the invitation. Just get on the phone and invite someone!” It’s not that the parent is wrong. In fact, the parent is usually right, simply because the parent is far older, more experienced and—let’s face it—wiser than the child with the problem. However, the natural style of telling the child what to do is, more often than not, ineffective.

Many times, it leads to a rapid-fire game of “yes-but,” as in “Yes—but I’ve called people in the past, and nobody ever wants to do anything with me. “ “Well, sometimes you have to just keep trying.” “Yes—but people get annoyed if you keep calling them.” “Well, maybe try different people, like the kids from shul instead of from school.” “Yes—but I only see them on Shabbat, so they don’t really know me.” And so on. The conversation typically feels like a struggle, causing frustration for both parent and child. The parent feels as if the child is purposely rejecting all suggestions, and the child typically feelsNobody ever wants to do anything with me misunderstood. If the “yes-but” game doesn’t start, the child might simply reject the parental advice: “I don’t want to.” Either way, it’s hard for anyone of any age to accept instructions from others, no matter how benevolently intended.

Ask First

One little change can sometimes make a big difference. Parents can make it easier for their child to accept a suggestion when they refrain from issuing that suggestion as an instruction. There are two ways to accomplish this:

1) Make the suggestion a question. The child is far more likely to actually consider the parent’s idea when it is put forth as a question, as opposed to a command: “How do you feel about the idea of calling your classmates, even though they haven’t been calling you?” Even if the child doesn’t like the idea, the question is more likely to lead to discussion than an out-and-out rejection. And even if, in the end, the child just cannot accept the idea, he or she will at least feel good about the parent, because the parent has not taken a strong, “know-it-all” position, and instead has been reflective and respectful in the problem-solving process. For these reasons, using the question technique with one’s spouse and other adults also works far better than just telling these people what to do. Asking, as opposed to telling, automatically shifts one from an authoritarian position to a more humble position, and as the Talmud points out, humility is the most cherished character trait—pleasing to G‑d and to man.

As an aside, the Torah requires a child to “ask, not tell” when speaking to a parent, since asking is a more respectful style of speech. For example, asking “Would it be okay if I didn’t take my sweater today?” is considered the correct way for the child to speak, as opposed to “I’m not taking my sweater today.” The former demonstrates humility and respect, while the latter shows arrogance and disrespect. As the child becomes a teenager, these subtle differences in language patterns can lead to glaring differences in relationship dynamics. Although parents are actually allowed to tell their kids what to do, the careful modeling of the “asking style” helps children incorporate that level of respect more easily into their own daily speech. In other words, it’s hard for parents who constantly issue demands and instructions to teach their kids how to slow down and ask rather than tell.

2) Ask permission to offer the suggestion. Here, the parent asks permission to enter the problem-solving mode, thereby creating what is called a “yes-set” in the child’s mind. For instance, after the child complains that nobody calls him, the parent can say something like “Would you like me to give you some help with this?” or “Can I share an idea with you?” As soon as the child says “yes,” his own mind readies itself to receive a suggestion from the parent. Again, if the child doesn’t like the idea, the conversation can still continue in aDo you want a suggestion? respectful way. The child perceives the parent’s respectful attitude and is far more likely to feel understood and supported, even if the parent doesn’t actually have a practical solution. We’ve all had the experience of telling a friend a problem and the friend telling us what we should do about it—and we are familiar with the natural resistance that arises. We know, too, how much better the conversation goes if our friend first asks us, “Do you want a suggestion?” It works exactly the same between parents and children.

While there is no one magic communication technique that removes all stress and strain from parent-child relationships, a small tweak here and there can often lead to better outcomes in specific conversations, and an accumulation of small tweaks can often have a positive effect on the entire relationship. Experiment with these strategies, and observe what transpires with your child!