Clarity is Everything

Yesterday I was walking home from an errand, and I passed through this little park at the corner.  There was a bunch of kids playing, and one of them was bananas.  He was running a little too fast, playing a little too rough, laughing a little too hard… every experienced parent can take one look at that scene and think "Well.  That’s a game that ends in tears" and two seconds later that’s just about what happened.  He went to playfully push at another littler kid, but he was too wound up, and without meaning to hurt anyone, he knocked the kid over and then, just to add insult to injury, accidentally stepped on his arm. 

The other kid started to cry, and the first boy tried to say something about how he didn’t mean to, and then he was off running again, and the parent in charge stood up off the bench and shouted "BILLY!" (Name changed to protect the innocent)  "GET A HOLD OF YOURSELF."

I cringed, the kid froze, then started running again, and shouted something unintelligible and then started trying to figure out how to be next on the slide, and distract everyone from what he’d done, and was just even more crazed.   The kid knew from the tone that he was in trouble, I mean, the kid’s not an idiot and the mum was yelling – and he did knock someone down and then step on them, which is frowned upon in all polite societies – but he clearly had no idea what came next and he was just all over the place.  He was in the process of removing a four year old from his path when his mum stood up again and yelled "WHAT DID I TELL YOU!"  She watched him for a few minutes, and then he shoved another kid out of his way, and she charged over, scooped him up and sat him down on the bench for a time out.  He pouted, and she said "I TOLD YOU TO STOP PUSHING" and with that, I lost it.  I lost it on the inside, naturally, because I’m not about to get in some poor mum’s face about her parenting, I mean, unless she’s doing him a terrible injury, like beating him or trying to chain him to a park bench or something,  but in that moment my heart went out to the two of them.  I remember those afternoons, and I suddenly wished we had the kind of society where more than one person was charged with raising kids, so that on a scorching afternoon when no mum could possibly be at her best, somebody who’s lived the dream could come up and say this:  "You know what might help? Better instructions, because I know you’re tired and you’ve probably told him a thousand times before today (or maybe even today) but technically, you told him to get a hold of himself, and that instruction is nothing like "stop pushing".  Now why don’t you have a cuppa tea and a lie down and I’ll read this lunatic a story before one of you has to go into protective custody in Belize."

I used to say stuff like "Get a hold of yourself" all the time.  Megan was the kid who cured me, because she was so literal.  I’d say "Cut it out!" and she’d say "Cut what? With scissors?" If I said "get a hold of yourself" she might have crossed her arms in a hug – "Simmer down"  would have brought me a blank stare.  She knew I didn’t like something about her behaviour, but what element exactly – and really, how was cutting something out going to be better?  Meg was the kid who taught me to be clear.  "Settle down" became "please don’t run right now" or "No pushing! It is not your turn. Your turn is after Susan. You’re next."  I didn’t learn it with Amanda, because she was my first, and just the fiercest, fastest kid ever, and her whole childhood was spent with me trying to keep her from killing herself or others, but I think it would have helped her – and me to have known to say "you may not try to put something in the cat’s nose" instead of "Be nice."

I was thinking about this today, not because I was still worried about it (that mum is a good mum and she and that wild animal will be just fine) but because I’ve been wandering around the house for two days trying to put all my ducks in a row, and failing miserably.  The kitchen is still trashed, there’s a mountain of stuff on the dining room table, I have no idea why my half unpacked suitcase is still in the living room – I’ve been trying to find 30 minutes to block a shawl for two days and it’s still sitting crumpled on the shelf outside the bathroom, and I’m dinner tonight is going to be pretty weird if I don’t get to the grocery store, and really, I can’t tell you how close I am to finishing the white North Ronaldsay on the wheel – which is in the middle of the living room, next to the vacuum I’m clearly not using… and I stood there in the middle of the whole thing and couldn’t get any of it done, and I caught myself thinking "What is this scene? GET A HOLD OF YOURSELF."

Then I remembered.  I need better instructions than that.  I’m going to make a list.

150 thoughts on “Clarity is Everything

  1. Amen for lists–even if you don’t get through it all, they help to stay on task and feel as though you’re making progress. Good luck! Best, randmknitter

  2. I think this is something everyone needs to remember. I know I do. I’ll try to give myself better instructions when I’m feeling overwhelmed instead of just saying “get stuff done”.
    Thanks for the inspiration!

  3. Lists are good. I like lists. I put things on my list that I can immediately cross off, just to make myself feel better. Try it — you’ll feel more in control with just one pencil swipe.

  4. Life lesson I wished I’d known when my child was small; yet valuable in so many contexts (work, home, managing my own expectations of myself).
    Thanks, as always, for the thoughtful smile..

  5. Thank you. You do much good in the world. Go Stephanie.
    And I would add to the parenting advice, when it comes to food a kid says he doesn’t like, ignore their not liking it. Just enjoy it and keep putting it on the table in front of them a few meals, and about the third time they’ll reach for it and have some too. I nearly fell off my chair the first time this worked.

  6. That is so true. I find I have a similar issue with my husband (a theoretically grown man), because he wants to be told things and I want to imply things (or not have to tell or imply at all, because really aren’t these things obvious). I’ll have to remember the clarity when I am next irritated because I’ve been doing dishes for an hour while he stares off into space.

  7. Or I should say, the first time I tried this–and it worked.)
    Wish I could come run some steam off that young’un while his mom relaxes. We would have such fun!

  8. I love your parenting stories! And I am completely in awe of your relationship with your daughters! Not sure how I’ll get there (grade 4 girls now), but I hope and pray that’s where we end up one day. I’ll be the first in line if you ever write a parenting book.

  9. I find this works well with “Clean your room”, too or “Put away your toys”. I need to spell out for my kid, my husband and myself what exactly that entails. Does cleaning mean vacuuming? Picking up things and putting it in a box? Putting things on the shelf? Organizing the shelf? Taking everything off the shelf and put it in a box?

  10. You know, everyone has these times. And frankly the house keeping will be there tomorrow. And the blocking projects will be done. And the basement will be better. And the weather will cooperate. And children will survive their parents, usually. You are a good, wise person, Steph. Take care of yourself.

  11. and look – your list is half written in this post.
    I make a list of “have to dos” and “want to dos” and then reward myself for doing the first by doing some of second.
    This does not work perfectly if the second list is full of stuff that takes hours to complete. Luckily for me – my first list is usually very short.

  12. Thanks for that reminder. My 4yo and 2yo nephews and their mum (my sister) are staying at my house for 6 weeks. Needless to say, it’s a mad house. Remembering to be clear in our instructions to each other will really help!

  13. Good instructions help, My son has offered to be my intern for my home biz(amazing he acutally likes to play in my dyepots). I realized I need to write instruction for him more specifically than a list for myself(because I can understand what the heck I’m talking about). Still he’s a great kid for offering his time.

  14. I know it’s wrong, but there’s something about the image of tiny Megan saying, “cut what?!” to a very frustrated you that tickles me. Maybe because I married a very literal man and it’s the type of answer that is frequently given in our house.
    Me: “BRB, I need to pee.”
    Husband: “Use the bathroom, please.”

  15. I feel the same way about parents who constantly tell their children “Say please”… I always say “how do you ask for what you want” Teach them don’t tell them.

  16. Boy, can the clarity thing be hard to remember, but you are so right about it. During my kids’ last wellness check-up, I got a printout of generic parenting advice and typical development stuff for 6yo children, and it said they often have trouble focusing and following too many directions at one time. It was like a lightbulb went off in my head. Now, when it’s time for my (6yo) son to clean his room or get ready for bed, I give him one task to complete before following up with another so he doesn’t completely forget what he’s doing. I’d say it works at least half the time (which is an improvement!)
    Have you read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic “Why Women Still Can’t have it All?” Just wondering what you think about that.

  17. Amen, sister! Now I too shall make a very much needed, detailed list so I can get through my mountain of chaos. (How did you know I needed this post today?) 😉

  18. All of a sudden I’m seeing a lil’ chibi Megan looking all cute and innocent when saying that! *lolz*

  19. Oh my god. I literally JUST finished telling my 2&1/2 year old to “be nice to your sister!” THANK YOU!! He thanks you, too, I’m sure. This is one of those facepalm moments I’m sure to have more of… It’s nice to think of them as older than they are, to respect their wishes and opinions… but an almost 3 yr old is really not going to understand the idea of “be nice”. Heck, he doesn’t even know what “why” means!!

  20. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am at a stage with my little ones where this kind of scene happens regularly. I know full well that what I should be saying is, “use gentle touch with our friends. He is playing with the ball right now, but you can ask to have a turn when he is done.” And that’s how I always start out, but at some point my brain explodes and I have an out-of-body experience where I watch myself sputter like a lunatic before taking my kids for a ride in the car because at least in the car they are strapped into car seats.
    I always feel like other mothers did this better, & I imagine them clucking their tongues at how poorly I’m coping. It’s much more encouraging to think that they’re remembering how hard it can be & feeling some sympathy for me. From now on, I’m going to try to imagine that they’re thinking: “Now why don’t you have a cuppa tea and a lie down and I’ll read this lunatic a story before one of you has to go into protective custody in Belize.”
    I think it will help.

  21. This.Is.So.True. As the mother of a very literal, nearly 12-year-old boy, well, let me just say I have been kept on my toes for nearly 12 years. It has been a wild ride.

  22. Excellent post. Our son is autistic. Instructions had to be very, very precise. “Don’t do that” had to be “Do not use a wet sponge to clean the piano.” “Don’t follow girls too closely” (a problem at the ice rink) had to be expressed as “Stay 1/4 of the rink behind the girl you’re following.” I am better now at giving instructions to everyone but myself. (And do not psychoanalyze that, please) Still stare vacantly at messy house and say “I should clean something up” and then go back to the computer because…what/which something? How? What first? With what?

  23. LOL. Had to laugh a little at the end of your post. I myself suffer from get a hold of yourself syndrome. My house is a mess, I have plenty of UFO´s in my yarn corner and here I sit 31 weeks pregnant reading blogs and knitting instead of getting more things done around the house. I have given myself a little more instruction by starting the 52 week challenge on my blog so that I am accountable to myself and my readers. Maybe something like that could help you? Here is my latest post for my 52 week challenge to take control of my home.

  24. My kid is only 3 months old. I hope I remember this when she’s old enough to understand what I’m saying.

  25. I found the power of lists when I was still in elementary school. Every time I had more things to do than I could be cerain I would keep track of, I would write them down.
    I still get a rush every time I check off things as done (finishing an entire list feels like an incredible accomplishment).
    My mother (not a list maker) made fun of my list making, so I tried to do without for awhile. That had a really negative impact on my productivity, so I went underground until I moved out of the house.
    Not surprisingly, I have always gotten more (and more substantial) work done on a daily/weekly/yearly basis than Mom has, including comparing us at the same age.
    As for kids (and anyone else), I’ve always found that telling a person what you want them to do is far more effective than telling them what not to do. How lists fit into this is that they help break down tasks that may seem overwhelming into bitesize chunks.

  26. lol i said ” this old rug is in bad shape” my then 5 year old son made a triangle with his fingers and looked up at me through them and asked “is this a bad shape?” only one of many strange conversations i have had with my brilliant but very litteral son in his 10 years of life. i say bring it on. besides if all your ducks are always in a row all they ever get to see is another ducks butt!(hows that for literal?)

  27. I’m sure clarity would help in most cases, but not always. Because then, when I beg one of my little girls to “please STOP talking,” there would be a few moments of blessed silence. And there isn’t.
    I’m thinking duct tape is the answer. Or ear plugs…

  28. Some of the best parenting advice I ever got wasn’t advice at all, it was just something my daughter’s preschool and kindergarten teacher said to me during our classroom walk-through before her first school year began.
    “We try to use precise language.”
    It was in response to asking about group time and how the kids knew to come over. There was a rug they would sit on – was it called rug-time, circle-time, what. Well, I was informed it wasn’t a circle, it was an ellipse (and asking the kids to come to ellipse-time is a bit too much). There are other rugs in the classroom, so rug-time wouldn’t work. Group time was the best solution since it was most accurately descriptive.
    I fail at this most of the time, but it has stuck with me and it’s something I strive to do.

  29. Thank you for this. My son is 4 months old and doesn’t need much instruction, but I hope that when he does I remember this post.

  30. Barbara Coloroso helped me avoid that pitfall. I read her book “Kids are worth it” when mine were still babies. She went so far as to clarify that you should tell kids what TO do rather than what NOT to do. I love simple tips like that.
    It nicely comes back to bite you on the but though, when as teenagers they correct your speech. At least mine do it politely, with a smile and a twinkle in their eye.

  31. Oh my goodness YES, we all need clarity… I wandered around my house for a good half hour this morning telling myself “Clean the house!” and I didn’t get anything done until I started telling myself, “Unload the dishwasher, now clean the counters, now sweep the floor…”.

  32. I just love this. I need to start giving myself better instructions, too. Thank you for posting, because I really needed to read this today!

  33. Ah LaurieM – I was just about to say exactly that. I teach 4 year olds & if you say “Don’t run indoors!” they just hear “Run indoors” so we say “Walk indoors” instead. Steph – your description of that boy was so like a child in my class who is very frequenly like that – all jangled & unsettled inside. Like you I think children like this would be so much better served by more support for parents/mothers. Thank you for your comments – I am gradually comming to realise that good child rearing usually translates to good self care too …. I have a real problem with crying & in awkward situations have been telling myself “Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry…….” You can guess what happens, but I am gradually learning from this mistakes – I’m 50 this year, give me another 50 years & I might just get a hang of this living thing.

  34. Holy cow, this is what I needed.
    I’m at my parents’ house, dealing with a mountain of random stuff I left here when I moved overseas. I’ve dealt with about 85% of the paper (I have saved EVERYTHING since high school… that’s a lot of paper) and prior to moving my stuff here, had dealt with a large amount of my non-paper stuff.
    Now I’m at that stage where a lot has been done, but clearly there’s still a lot to go, and the next step isn’t obvious, so I’ve spent the last two days not really getting much of anything done. My instructions to myself have been “clean this up (a room that’s been trashed in the name of organizatioon) so you can deal with the stuff in the garage” – and since the room is trashed, there isn’t a clear starting place (unlike, say, the pile of boxes full of paper – start with the box on top).
    Now I need to figure out where I put the paper that I had intended to use for making lists of stuff to do, that got misplaced in the process of trashing this room…

  35. As a new mama who has yet to do anything but nurse and cuddle and change diapers, thank you for this advice in advance. 🙂

  36. So, so true. When I hear parents speaking in sophisticated, indirect, socially-encouraged speech to children, I cringe inside. It’s not fair to their uber-literal, still very simply-developed brains to do that to them. Children don’t learn to think abstractly until their early teens . . . so telling an over-revved tyke to get a grip (which I have done, I’ll admit), is rather futile.
    And to DBChen, whose comment is just a few above mine: your baby understands so much more than you know, even now at 3 months. Start speaking clearly now, and you’ll be amazed at how much response you receive.

  37. Oooh, my. Thanks for the dope-slap, Steph.
    Maybe it’s the moon, but I have been manicky unproductive this morning. I need to get a hold of myself and make a list.

  38. Beautifully put. We often don’t give ourselves clear enough instructions and then wonder why we aren’t doing a better job. Isn’t it wonderful, too, how much clarity and wisdom we gain with time and age. If only we had possessed it when we were younger and most needed it.

  39. Thank you Steph. Some clarity that I will take to heart with my wild/beautiful/smart/quick 3 year old daughter. I told my 6 year old last night to watch her mouth. Honestly confused, she replied “but I can’t see my mouth”. We both learned a lesson from that.

  40. Exactly. Great reminder for all.
    Read once: don’t tell the kids what NOT to do, tell them what to DO.
    IE: Toddler puts something non-edible in mouth. Say: spit it out! (Not, don’t swallow!)
    If only I could remember this for myself all the time.

  41. Your reaction to the scene in the park means that you have moved to the next level: You are ready to be a grandmother.

  42. Too funny. My son has been a tad overwrought lately…growing pains…not sleeping great…the fact that he’s two. You know how it goes. I keep telling him to “settle down!” and “knock it off!”. Now that I think about it telling him to knock it off is probably sending the wrong message. I can’t even imagine how that must come across to his ever-learning little brain. I’ll have to try being a bit more specific from now on.

  43. So true! “Nice” is totally meaningless. When I was in charge of a child care center, I did not allow my staff to use that word. BE SPECIFIC! And tell the little people WHAT to do, not what NOT to do.

  44. I was thinking about this today, not because I was still worried about it (that mum is a good mum and she and that wild animal will be just fine) but because I’ve been wandering around the house for two days trying to put all my ducks in a row, and failing miserably. The kitchen is still trashed, there’s a mountain of stuff on the dining room table, I have no idea why my half unpacked suitcase is still in the living room – I’ve been trying to find 30 minutes to block a shawl for two days and it’s still sitting crumpled on the shelf outside the bathroom, and I’m dinner tonight is going to be pretty weird if I don’t get to the grocery store, and really, I can’t tell you how close I am to finishing the white North Ronaldsay on the wheel – which is in the middle of the living room, next to the vacuum I’m clearly not using… and I stood there in the middle of the whole thing and couldn’t get any of it done, and I caught myself thinking “What is this scene? GET A HOLD OF YOURSELF.”
    Then I remembered. I need better instructions than that. I’m going to make a list.
    Thank you for that…It’s the first thing that has made me feel better in days…I love that you are a real person…Now I am going to make a list!!

  45. Mother to out of control three year old: Now you have really crossed the line.
    Sobbing three year old, looking at floor: what line? I don’t see any line.
    My house, 22 years ago. Thanks for the reminder.

  46. That is my go-to parenting/teaching advice, be clear in your expectations. If they do not know what you want, then can not give it to you.
    Loved the part about Belize, gave me a giggle. 🙂

  47. I can make perfectly good lists, it’s just that I forget to look at them again.
    Where were you 20-something years ago? I sure could have used that advice then. At least I’ve kind of learned that when you ask for something, you really have to “spell it out”.

  48. Ok – I read the blog post title as “Charity is everything” which, in this instance, might have also been appropriate.
    Although clarity is a might-y fine thing too. 🙂

  49. So, I can’t speak to children the way I talk to my dog? Drop it (before she swallows it).
    Leave it (before she gets it in her mouth).
    Sit (to keep her from knocking someone over).
    …or maybe these commands would work on kids?

  50. A friend once told me that her husband was at his wit’s end with their young daughter one evening, who happened to cap things off by spilling some milk in the kitchen. He gave her a towel to wipe up the spill, which she attempted to do, though with little efficacy. He said “No, no not like that. Use your head.” Their daughter looked up at her daddy quizzically, then did exactly as she had been told. She got down on her knees, put her head down, and attempted to move the towel around with her head.

  51. Love it! Once again I chuckled outloud and this time I will share this post with my son and daughter-in-law. I love how clear your vision is. hugs to you and happy list making. 🙂

  52. Lists are good. They have saved my sanity many times.
    I just need to follow through with them more often – look at my trashed house!
    Precise language is good.

  53. Is it just me, or is your main page still on July 6 called “Melting”? I had to Google search to find your recent posts. After reading them, pressing “Main” got me “Melting”. This happened last month too.

  54. maybe your next book could be about parenting. This post makes so much sense! I’m 35 weeks pregnant with my first baby and I’m a little terrified.

  55. Ah! My eldest (of 2) cured me when I said to her, (she was about 14) after a bunch of sass included a cussword – “Stop sassing or I’ll wash your mouth out with soap!” – I was doing dishes – she went into the bathroom, got the bar of soap, came into the kitchen, took a bite of the soap in front of me and started chewing. Can’t remember if I laughed or not – I should have! :^)

  56. Flash back to 6 years ago, sitting at supper table with my husband and 2 daughters. Younger daughter trying to tell me something, but having trouble getting the words out (um, um, um, um) – me, tired after a long day, getting a bit frustrated, said “Fiona, just spit it out”. She looked at me, looked at her dad, seemed slightly confused…and then spit the food she was chewing out on her dinner plate and looked expectantly at me.
    Clarity… took a while, but I learned to be much more specific with my requests!

  57. Won’t tell you how many years ago there was this dialogue in our house:
    2-yr-old daughter: I hate you!
    Me( gently): We don’t say that in this house.
    2-yr-old: Then, let’s go OUTSIDE!
    Me: ROFL
    She’s a married lawyer these days and it still works better when I spell things out, which is funny, because in most cases I am a FAR more literal person than she is.
    Such good memories.
    Thanks for the beautiful post.

  58. Thank you.
    This is just the reminder I needed today. I have a 2-yr-old and a (crawling, standing holycrap) 7 month old, and after a frustrating day at the park, I needed to remember to be clear.

  59. Clarity, perspective, a quiet place to gather your thoughts. I make lists. Constantly. It doesn’t help me reduce the stress, really. It does help me deal with everything I have on my plate. Single mom. Small business owner with a full time “real” job. The only way I can make ends meet, not accidently blow grocery money on yarn, and find “me time” is to make a list every day.
    I do agree that your next book should be “How My Knitting Saved My Family – and other parenting tricks” How about a collection of stories from knitting mothers (and fathers)?
    Aaaaaaaand Go.

  60. The skill of clear instructions is something I learned in my teaching job. We are seeing more and more students with Autism integrated into High School classes and these students have taught me so much in regards to how to phrase instructions and questions. I can’t just ask “what do you think about . . . ” because the honest answer may be “I don’t” and I have to accept that. Turns of phrase are also brutal, I have to be so careful when giving instructions or correcting behaviour. I personally love the challenge – I feel like it has made me a much better teacher – but I know a few staff members who are driven crazy by the specificity.
    Great post!

  61. I just love everything about this post – this is me to a tee. With my daughter, with myself: I need better instructions, and am ALWAYS in need of a list 🙂 Good luck Stephanie, you can doooooo it!! 🙂

  62. I love this! How often is it me who has to “get a hold of” myself, before anyone else can? Maybe I need better directions in those situations, too!

  63. Funny. I have a special needs son, and one afternoon in Home Depot, I was tired and he would not stay sitting in the cart, or standing by the cart. He was climbing it. I was just trying to get curtains! I knew he could fall and crack his head open, but it had been such a long day with him and I was so tired, I didn’t care. A very nice lady came over and said, “It looks like you are tired. Do you mind if I play with him while you finish what you are doing?” I was more than fine with that! I really wanted to take her home. 🙂

  64. Get a hold of yourself…never heard that growing up, but plenty of “God Bless America,….” from my mother when anyone of us got a little too crazy running around the house.

  65. My brother and I were roommates as adults in our 20s, and he taught me the lesson of clarity. If you want something done, be clear about it. For example, “the bathroom needs to be cleaned” is NOT clear (at least it wasn’t clear to him…). He just didn’t see that as a request to clean the bathroom, just as a statement of fact. I had much better luck with “Please clean the bathroom.” And for best results, I had to be really specific: “please clean the bathtub and scrub the inside of the toilet bowl and clean the bathroom floor, etc.” It’s been years now, but I thank him regularly for teaching me this. Being clear is a lesson I put in practice almost daily, in all parts of my life…

  66. As a mother of five age six and under let me say, I’ve been that mom. and what I wouldn’t give some days for another experienced mom to let me have a cuppa while my wild ones calm down.

  67. One day a couple of decades ago, when my daughter was only five and had lost her grip, I looked at her and saw my own face in her frustrated little face. As if I was looking in a mirror, I realized it was I without a grip. Everything changed after that day. Not instantly, or overnight, or even consistently, but for the better. I am so thankful that she was able to teach me that I was the one who lost the grip.

  68. I’m a fully grown up person (usually), and my life has taken a dramatic turn for the better recently. I replaced the “You really should get your life together” daily instruction/admonition with the following LIST:
    brush your teeth
    wash your face
    take your vitamins
    go for a walk
    what’s for supper?
    Now you may turn on the computer!
    Clarity really is everything.

  69. Husbands need specific instructions too. “Please put your coffee mug in the dishwasher when you’re done.” “Take out the trash” is too vague. Better to say, “please empty all the baskets, take out the trash, and put a new trash bag in the bin.”
    I have to find the instructions that will get his to close the kitchen cupboard doors.

  70. Perfect absolutely perfect!! It would be wonderful if we could live in a place where someone else could step in and give a breather and a littler reminder. Thank you.

  71. Amen sister. I call it “armchair parenting”, which also includes asking the child their opinion rather than informing them. For instance: Would you like to put your coat on? This one is hard not to giggle at when asked by a parent on a below everything degree day to a 5 year old. Then the parent is surprised when they find themselves in diplomatic negotiations trying to get to their next stop that they inevitably are late for. Although I feel that I have “don’t ask, tell” (not ordered or barked, mind you) mastered pretty well in my classroom, my teenage daughter looked at me with the all too familiar blank face when I asked her from the kitchen if she could empty the rabbit litter? Of course the answer was, “Yes, I am able. Why are you asking?” Touche!

  72. Substitute a basket of clean(for a week and a half) laundry for the suitcase and a massive pile of Legos for the spinning wheel and you have my living room! I,too, think to myself “why the hell is this place such a mess?” And then I remember. I need to tell the three other people in my house what to do to.

  73. My youngest cured me of making comments that were not clear. I told him one day to “Behave yourself!” He replied that he was “being have”. 🙂

  74. Love the reminder that clarity is a good thing… just want to advocate tho. I have worked with the special needs population since 1996. I have been out and about with kids with a condition called Autism. These kids are special in many ways. They are also misunderstood by the general public. As on lookers, we should be aware that maybe the child could be Autistic. Hopefully, the child you were observing is just full of energy and passion and will learn proper behaviour soon. But, maybe, just maybe, this child is Autistic and needs understanding. No way of telling unless you ask the caregiver directly, but it is something that should be considered.

  75. When my dad yelled, “Knock off that crap!” there was no doubt in our pea-brains what he meant. We just quit what we were doing — ’cause consequences were high.
    I tried not to raise my children in the same way, but I made my own mistakes. I tried to give specific instructions, but I know I didn’t always succeed.

  76. With a lot of moms in my sphere of parenting, it’s “Be careful”. Huh? What does that mean to a kid? Like jumping on the bed…BE CAREFUL…and the kid falls off the bed b/c she’s jumped too close to the edge. Yeah, Be Careful isn’t too clear, is it? I learned quickly with the first one and was glad b/c the second one is very very literal. I really don’t care if my kid jumps on the bed, I just don’t want to wash blood off my floor. So, “Be Careful and pay attention and jump in the middle of the big bed, not the edge of the smaller beds!”

  77. Getting ahold of one’s self is like taking jello to the wind!!
    Only other people can get a hold of you because you have flesh, blood and something to get a hold of. So…you sit down, have a cuppa tea (or a big glass of a good Canadian beer) and think about…and ONLY about what MUST be done before sundown.
    Then…go do that. Then..have another beer or what ever and congratulate yourself on having done that…thing. Go to be, get up when it is time, and do it all over again.

  78. I have perfect parenting skills… that the kids are grown and I’m looking back with that 20/20 hindsight. It wasn’t me screeching like an extremely shrill madwoman for everyone to just HUSH UP so I could have some peace. I know I was louder than the kids.

  79. Wow, there is something almost revelatory about this. I never thought of lists in that way before. Suddenly they make sense. No wonder this blog is so popular 🙂

  80. Ha! I have been that mother. I had to un-learn a lot of things about relating to children; and then Captain Adventure came along and threw the ‘autism’ thing into the ring for added difficulty points. He taught me to be VERY clear, VERY concise, and VERY consistent.
    I still haven’t learned to apply this to ME, though…I STILL give myself instructions that sound like this: “You need to do stuff more better-er than that.” – and then expect that, well, stuff (I have no idea WHAT stuff, just, you know, STUFF) is going to be, um, more…better-er. Ish. Than it was. Whatever it was. Will be. MORE BETTER-ER. (<= then, I am SHOCKED and DISAPPOINTED that, well, stuff ISN’T more better-er. Like, immediately. Sigh. Hopeless.)

  81. This is wonderful. In fact, i’m going to write it down somewhere I will remember to look in 10 years when i have kids. Now I have to figure out where that would be . . . . .

  82. Now that I’m a grandmother and can regularly witness the varied parenting styles of my children and my husband’s children (four sets of parents of children 3 and under), I’m much more sensitized to what is good parenting and what isn’t. I could write a book about this!
    Two of the parental commends that particularly bug me are “say you’re sorry” and “share your toys.” If a child doesn’t feel sorry, it’s a meaningless rote exercise in saying whatever the parents want him to say so they will stop bugging him. And what 3-year old feels sorry for most of the “bad” things he does? I’m not sure how you teach empathy, but I’m pretty sure this won’t work.
    And to a 3-year old, “share your toys” simply means “he can play with it now and you can’t.” Surely there are better ways to explain sharing!
    I suspect that one of my grandsons is on the autism spectrum, so this is especially important when interacting with him. And his parents totally don’t get it. I call it “parenting according to the script” instead of “actually paying attention to your child and figuring out what he needs.” Thanks for giving me a place to get this off my chest!

  83. I’m sorry… but “Duh”.
    Kids need literal instructions, adults need literal instructions. Let’s round it out and say “HUMANS NEED LITERAL INSTRUCTIONS” it’s easier that way.
    And if you had walked up to that woman and said that you would have been wrong. You don’t know what is happening in her life. You don’t know the situation and whether or not you have the best intentions YOU are not the authority. That mom is, for better or worse. All you can do is pay for the kids therapy in a shared health care system later down the line.

  84. I have 3 kids 10-4-2. Our home is never spotless but i do try to keep it tidy. I’m anal about it.
    My husband’s favorite chant to me when I get home from work —
    Go dead and blind, go deaf and blind …….

  85. We had so many of these moments in my family as we were growing up! Two of my favorite….
    Dad: You had better walk a narrow line!
    My brother: Okay. (As he put one foot in front of the other, heel to toe, and left the room via the line formed by the seam in the tiled floor…)
    Dad: You are a real gem (dripping with sarcasm)!
    My sister: Thank you!
    It takes a certain amount of maturity to handle euphemisms and sarcasm. Parenting my own son is soooo much easier when I’m not so obtuse!

  86. I am convinced my oldest is alive because I took a class in “natural and logical consequences” in college. My entire education was worth the cost for that one class. He was a wonderful, delightful child, so frighteningly creative, and simultaneously, the kid from Hades, since, among other things, he only slept if he was nursing or in a moving vehicle (which pretty much meant I wasn’t sleeping for the latter), did not take a bottle or a pacifier, and was born ticked off that he couldn’t walk and everyone else could. He also grew ten teeth between the ages of 4-6 months.
    Both my kids had truly literal minds, so I learned to be really specific when speaking to them. Although, I’m pretty sure I could have done even better, maybe if I just hadn’t been so tired. LOL
    I work in a middle school. I have seen the wild and crazy, and then had to bring them in and expect them to do school work. LOL

  87. I did not read any of the preceeding comments since I’m over the 100 mark, but this poor child sounds like he needs help, not scolding. Perhaps he has issues and Mum is in denial.

  88. having raised three daughters-one set of twins and my youngest 2.5 years later (she wanted to know where her twin was-like i had done something with her twin??) and created a busy ob/gyn practice at the same time, i have said all your phrases and had much the same response. in fact, they were my mother’s words. lists kept me going, even today, but i still have UFO piles that do not rank with my knitting/crocheting projects and just about anything else that would be more fun–i am trying my hand at bell ringing. so glad that you visited Shreveport!

  89. I had a rough parenting day today — I’m the mom of fourteen-month-old twins and my husband is out of town on business this week. Your blog was exactly what I needed to read tonight. You helped me regain some perspective so that tomorrow I can lift my chin up and do the whole thing all over again — with perhaps a little more patience and thoughtfulness. Thank you.

  90. Imagine the very literal 3- year – old who hears-as he’s playing catch-“keep your eye on the ball!”. He taught me well and quickly. And 20 years later he’s still that literal.

  91. My youngest son is on the autism spectrum. Literal is our life. But also the question: “what did I tell you?” often helps because he will repeat it exactly…which helps him remember…which helps when he knocks over and then steps on a child on his own way to the top of the slide. “what did I tell you?” “you told me to go slow and then stop if my body bumps someone” “what just happened?” “I went fast and bumped someone and forgot the second part of your sentence and then I saw the slide. Can I try to remember again?” “Yes” “Say it again to me.”

  92. Wonderful blog! I wish I had someone remind me when my kids were little of this important fact to be more specific when talking to young children. I’m saving this and will share it in the future with anyone I know who might benefit from it’s wisdom including myself when I’m lucky enough to be a grandma. Thank you so much.

  93. Ah yes. . .I remember when my parents would yell something like “Stop that or else!” and I would respond “Stop what? And or else what?” It certainly didn’t help that I was the precocious one who thought reading the encyclopedia was fun. Many years later, my father admitted I sometimes made him feel like I was Perry Mason and he was the guilty party being cross-examined!
    As for the housework and the lists: I found that listing the housework I needed to do resulted only in lists of things I was procrastinating about. When “throw out the old lists” started appearing, I stopped making lists.

  94. I have a nearly-four-year-old and I’m forever telling him to be gentle or be nice or calm down without referring exactly to what I mean. And I’m telling myself to do some study! Without telling myself exactly what to do.
    Thanks for the reminder Steph to be specific.
    Good luck with your tasks for the day.

  95. I’m glad you made this post. I have a little boy who will be 3 in September. He’s a good boy, but on the days that he is crazy? I don’t know what to do.
    But here it is. He is a good little boy who follows directions when they are clear and not at all arbitrary. Thanks for the reminder.

  96. that mom sounds like me today — taking my ADHD 7.5 year old to Shakespeare in the park.
    someday I’ll look back on this and laugh, but that day is a long, long way away.

  97. Ohhh Stephanie….you’ve done it again!! You make things sooooo very clear!! I am the mum of ‘3’ adult sons & am about to be a ‘gramma’ for the FIRST time….woooot!!! I told my son the “one” thing I would do differently would be to laugh MORE….’cause not everything should be serious (like a heart attack!!)Thank God for lists…or I’d still be wandering aimlessly thru the grocery store….(:

  98. Oh dear. That post made me quite weepy. My children were/are that child, and I was that mother. I wish I’d had a friend like you. It’s very hard being the bad mother of the bad kid.

  99. I’ll try to remember your wise words in the oh so near future when my now 1 year old and I are trying to communicate well!

  100. I was at a playground the other day with my 2 year old grandaughter who has mild CP and those 10 year old kept going the wrong way on the slide and pushing others out of the way,screaming, no parents in sight…I lost it a bit and said loudly”Hey guys, can you settle down a bit please” the dad came over running from the other end and started scolding me that I should have asked nicely! He was busy texting. I almost lost it then, but just plainly told him his kids were acting carelessly. I was just boiling inside…other parents gave me the thumbs up.
    thanks for your post. I had 4 kids , all grown up and i can remember a few moments when I had to tell myself”BREATHE”.

  101. Self discipline is the hardest thing to teach your child but desperately needed now more than ever.

  102. Well said. I remember those days too. I’ll bet that mom would have loved a cuppa tea and an empathetic friend.

  103. Clarity in instructions is everything. Nobody is telepathic. I have a wonderful friend who, every time her son would say “I’m hungry/bored/thirsty/whatever” would respond with: “Is that a question? Doesn’t sound like a question to me.” He soon learned to ask for what he wanted/needed. I use a similar technique at work, where I often receive a long email that doesn’t specifically ask me one way or another to do anything. (The British are very good at not asking for what they want/need. They expect you to divine it.)
    Hinting is the other frustrating thing. I don’t know how many times, I have heard women whinge: “But I told him xxxxx and he still didn’t do it”. My response has always been: “Did you ask clearly? Or did were you dropping hints”. Women, in particular, hint at things but never actually ask for what they want or state how they feel. “He should have known that would upset me” is another classic, when they haven’t actually told the poor bloke involved what the problem is. (Sorry, don’t mean this to sound like a dig at women – it’s not. But I’ve worked in male dominated environments for the last 20 years and, although I can usually interpret hints, I’ve learned to think more like a bloke. Hinting is not part of their vocabulary.)
    – Pam
    (PS: Can’t believe you’ve been spammed by some investment idiots!)

  104. yep, you have to put “Write a list” at the top, and then “Have a coffee” second. In no time you’ll have two things done 🙂

  105. I am having a day that needs explicit instructions as well. Not going into work so I should get so much done. I made a list at breakfast and am talking my silly, distracted self through said list. It’s not working so well, I’m wandering on the net!

  106. The best non clear direction in our house was”Pick up your leg and bite it.” one missing adjective….chicken… Had our three year old very confused. clarity, love the title!

  107. Huh. That child was mine when he was 10–and I was that mother. A year later we learned he had ADHD, OCD, an anxiety disorder and a short-term memory issue. Instructions became clearer, and shorter. My patience grew exponentially and even though we are still working on it, I think we’re making progress! Beautiful post, as always.

  108. Just a personal note about list making–our married daughter visited and spent several days with us. Over the course of her visit she told me repeatedly,”Momma, you have too much stuff in this house. You really need to size down.” And, when I reminded her that her father was somewhat of a hoarder she looked at me and coarsely said,”You have a lot of toys, also.”
    Two weeks later our grandchildren spent a full week with us and our daughter’s summation of the house became very clear.
    Since everyone has left and no more company is expected for a couple of weeks, I am busily trying to do some re-organizing and cleaning which includes getting rid of some things. It doesn’t help when hubby goes behind me and pulls items out of the recycling that he hates to see leaving the house.
    Lists are my best friend at this point–a list of what must be done and broken down into steps. Just please do not let me lose a list or all of my discipline and organization will be lost.
    I truly understand the power of lists!

  109. You are wise.
    I feel overwhelmed and exhausted all the time. I’m still recovering from pneumonia so I’m way behind in dyeing, labeling, listing, etc., etc., etc., and I keep feeling like there’s stuff I should be doing that I don’t even remember.
    I think I started a list, but it got lost in the clutter. Time to start another one, I guess.

  110. EXCELLENT! Now I get it~wish I could re-do bringing up my three yoingins with your sage advice 🙂

  111. Steph been thinking about this myself lately as I’m working on a slide show about barriers to healthcare in our county. I remember when he got the dread diagnosis. I remember sitting and patiently blankly listening to the instructions given, nodding like I knew what they were talking about and blankly walking out the door without a clue. Didn’t know how to make all of that happen to insure a long and productive life or what ever was next. Sometimes life is so overwhelming, but thank goodness for loving supportive friends who pick up where I leave off and become a voice of reason in irrational craziness.

  112. I have a 23-year-old and a 21-year-old living at home while finishing college. This is a good reminder that they don’t outgrow the need for specificity when I want them to do something.
    Thanks. 🙂

  113. Maybe you won’t be quite so polite when you’re older LOL! (There’s something about being 60 or 70 that gives us license to think we can be more blunt.)
    Back in the dark ages (my youngest dd says I’m older than dirt and she’s not far off 😉 I recall being utterly mystified by the word “naughty.” “Don’t be naughty” meant that my mom was upset, but I didn’t know why. I made sure to be be more specific with my own kids.
    To-Do lists work better for me when I use a verb and are very specific: empty cat box, return library books, pick up living room. “Pick up downstairs” sends me into overwhelm, even if that’s what’s needed.
    Thanks for sharing!
    Carol in MA

  114. I am laughing, remembering when all 5 boys would be here and the organized chaos…. “take a chill pill” used to work… the oldest 3 are out on their own now (the oldest has two little girls, both redheads who rule the house… until they come to Nana’s! The youngest two boys are 14 and 12)… and it wasn’t until the youngest that it was challenged…. Dh and I swear he’s going to become a lawyer…. he’s argumentative (all telling him to stop being argumentative accomplished was him knowing the meaning by the time he was 2) and always looks for loopholes when it comes to rules….

  115. what occurred to me in all of your chaos, bc i feel it most of the time too: at least you don’t have a newborn. i have no time to knit, bills sitting in my lap, laundry and dog hair all over, lunch still sitting out in kitchen, i stop for minute to read your blog, and bam! baby crying in monitor. that’s it for me!!! at least you don’t have a newborn 🙂

  116. This is the BEST thing I’ve read all day, maybe for many days, only I can’t remember everything that’s happened in the past few to be completely fair. You get moms and your generosity towards them is moving. Thanks. You’re awesome- for so many reasons!

  117. “better instructions” — I think those two words may be the answer to 99% of my messy life.

  118. I agree with this post in essence. But now I’m a grandma and when my kids say things like “get a hold of yourself,” to their little ones, I have learned to stand back and keep my big mouth shut. These young parents will learn in their own time like I had to. Not an easy thing to do, but essential in the long run!

  119. Wow… This is such good advice. I can’t tell you how very much I enjoy everything you write about parenting.

  120. The top of any list
    Cup of tea and sit down.
    Take a breath
    wake up and wonder why you were napping in the first place.

  121. She speaks the truth. Same with teaching – adults don’t stop and think that kids need more instructions than “do your work,” because “doing your work” means sitting down at a desk, finding a sharpened pencil, finding the paper that is relevant at that time, reading the directions (which can include many steps in itself, depending on the ability level) and remembering that adding is the same as “plussing.” – all without making conversation with anybody nearby. And when kids don’t do their work, it’s frustrating to figure out exactly WHERE the communication went wrong. But 99.9% of kids don’t WANT to do the wrong thing. (I gave myself a .01% window just because I haven’t yet met every single child). They just need to know what the wrong things and right things are.
    In conclusion, I agree. We all need a cup of tea and specific instructions.

  122. Thank you for this post. I’m currently raising my 15 months old first, and it helps so much to hear advice like this! I would welcome that chance to go have a cup of tea and a sit down by myself for a few minutes! Come down to Seattle next time you’re in the area and you can have some baby cuddles!

  123. I have spent 2 days trying to pack (for a month long vacation) and doing exactly the same thing (!) and it’s worse than that – my husband’s even better at the circle thing than I am :D! It’s a good thing we always plan to leave at least 3 days before we need to be there (it’s actually an 18 hour drive!!!). This time he made a list; I didn’t.

  124. No kids here, but that wandering-around-aimlessly-not-getting-anything-sorted experience is SO familiar. Better instructions. OK.

  125. Stephanie: Think about it. You have added training for the bike race to your already crowded schedule. I am amazed that you are standing at all. The house will always be there with those same jobs to be done :(. It’s not going anywhere and you are almost to the finish line with the race. It can wait. Take care of yourself before the race.
    Kath in Cleveland

  126. I love you Stephanie Pearl Macphee. (written from a room which is festooned with a partially made Victorian dress, various knitting projects, an ironing board and the still packed weekend case from a weekend I shouldn’t have gone on when I have an entire Victorian costume to make for next weekend) I love the patience you have with young things – and I hope I do too!

  127. Why is it, when we change children’s names to protect the innocent, we choose Billy so frequently? Is it because no one actually calls their child Billy anymore?

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