A large part of managing my stubborn, willful, likes-to-be-in-charge toddler is managing my own words. To be successful, one word I have mostlybanned from my vocabulary is “OK.”
It usually wants to show up in one of two ways.
The first is the ever-insidious, “OK?” As in, “We’re going to leave the park now, OK?” or “It’s time to stop playing with your favorite toy, OK?” Toddlers are very literal little creatures. When I ask her, “OK?” at the end of a statement then as far as she is concerned I am asking her permission. Permission which she usually does not grant. But permission which I am almost never actually asking for. So when I say, “We’re going to leave the park now, OK?” and she says, “No!” and then melts down when I pick her up and take her out anyway she is not being a brat or refusing to listen. On the contrary, she is upset that, as far as her brain can understand, I am not listening to her.
Almost everyone uses this phrase absent-mindedly (seriously, listen to yourself sometime and I can almost guarantee you’ll be shocked at how many times it comes out of your mouth) because we are trying to be good communicators. When we ask our toddlers (or children, or teenagers!), “OK?” we aren’t really asking their permission. We are asking if they understand what we mean. Checking for comprehension is a great thing to do! However, when we use “OK?” to do it our meaning is often lost in translation, leading to frustration on both ends.
In banning “OK?” from my vocabulary I am replacing it with nothing when no request for confirmation is needed or it is implicit (e.g. “It’s time to hold my hand,” includes implicit confirmation of understanding if she complies), a more specific request for confirmation (e.g. “We’re leaving in 5 minutes. Show me 5!”) or an explicit request of understanding (e.g. “When you finish these they are all gone. Do you understand?”). This has led to essentially cutting off meltdowns from this type of interaction, which is huge!
The second way “OK” shows up is in the comforting, “It’s OK.” This is something that comes out of our mouths almost automatically when our child is upset. With our greater range of experience we often know that what is upsetting our child really is OK. That speck of dust, or small ant, or dot of paint on their hand, or piece of cereal dropped to the floor isn’t going to end the world. However, I have never once found, “It’s OK,” to be a comforting phrase to my child. It has never soothed her or made her feel better. So I thought about why.
If I am upset about something, something I may even know isn’t a big deal but I am still feeling genuine emotions of worry or sadness or anger about, and I express those feelings to my husband and he says, “It’s OK,” or “It will be OK,” I tend to get more upset (he has learned not to do this because he is a smart, smart man). It is definitely not comforting! This is not a response that is helpful; it may be OK eventually, it may be OK in the grand scheme of things, but right now to me and how I am feeling it is not OK. I am upset and those feelings are real and valid.
Even though my daughter is a child her feelings are the same. Me telling her, “It’s OK,” doesn’t make it magically OK for her. She is still feeling real feelings of sadness or anger or worry and saying “It’s OK,” dismisses those feelings.
I have almost exclusively replaced, “It’s OK” with other generic comforting phrases that are actually comforting such as, “Mama’s here,” “I’m sorry you’re sad,” or, sometimes most powerful of all, silent presence (which is hard for someone who likes to talk as much as me). Alternately, I “sportscast” what she is feeling to help her learn to identify and own those reactions and emtions (e.g. “Wow, you fell down! That looked like it surprised you. Are you feeling a little surprised and scared? It can be scary when something happens we don’t expect,” etc.) The only time I pull out, “It’s OK,” is when my child is actually upset because she is afraid something is not OK, for example, if she is worried that something that fell down is broken. This change has led to her being soothed much more easily when she is upset, and to her starting to learn that naming what has happened has power to help her get past it.
Taking “OK” out of my vocabulary in these two ways has helped my daughter and I communicate with far fewer tears and far more understanding.