Stop asking "What do you want?" or "Do you want to?"
I remember a difficult time in our life at the park. My son spent the entire outing moving between whining, tantruming, demanding something he could not have, or sitting quietly doing nothing. I spent the entire time pointing out all the lovely things he could and should do. I remember thinking, "He likes nothing, he wants nothing, he is depressed or anxious; there must be something wrong with him. How is it possible that a two-year-old doesn't want to "Carpe Diem" at the park with a mother ready and willing to let him explore to his heart's content?!" Please tell me I'm not the only one this neurotic.
After reflection, observation, and practice I realized all my questioning and offering ideas were pointless. I spent the first 2 years of my son's life asking him stupid questions like, “Wanna do this? Look! You can try this!” Or "What do you want to do?" Or "Do you want to play with..."At best it’s annoying, at worst it’s intrusive and disrupts his inner voice. Here’s how:
Let’s say you just got to the park and exclaim, “Look, there is a slide! Do you want to slide?” This question is annoying because it implies they don’t already see the slide and know it is an available option. My son would inevitably respond with protest and upset, and I would (shamefully) conclude he must be a grouch who doesn’t like anything. Boy was I wrong. Now I realize he was just trying to say, “Yeah, I know mom. I’m not an idiot I see the slide. Can I have a moment to look around and make up my own mind?!”
Imagine you are on vacation. You just walked into the hotel lobby and you're taking it all in. There is a concierge's desk, a front desk, you walked by the pool, the beach is waiting for you outside. Right then your partner turns to you and says, "What do you want to do?!" You respond, "I don't know." or stay quiet. Then your partner says, "Look there's a pool, a concierge, a front desk; I bet you would love the pool, want to try the pool first?!" Again, you say "I don't know." or stay quiet. Then your partner keeps going, "Well there's a gift shop, I bet you would enjoy that, let's go there!" I don't know about you but for me, I would be feeling anxious and I would want my partner to shut up and move away from me right about now. I would bet our children are having similar feelings when we bombard them with questions and suggestions.
Here is another example. Two children notice each other in the sandbox. There is an awkward moment of silence, stillness, and maybe tension so the caregiver comes up and says, “Here, do you want to dig? Come on let’s dig together!”
*insert forehead slap emoji. Stop, just stop. These children might be sizing each other up, deciding if they like each other, they might be waiting to see who makes the first move, or deciding if the other person is doing something interesting. Maybe they were about to choose a running game together. Well, now we will never know because that caregiver decided “digging” was the best idea for this moment.
When we do this we are taking away the opportunity to learn how to meet someone and enter play. Often these questions are met with resistance and whining. "No, I don't want to dig!" The adults wrongly assume the child is shy or unfriendly when really, they are protesting the intrusion and disruption of a process that belongs to them!
Imagine you enter a party and you don't know anyone well. There might be a few acquaintances but most are strangers. You decided someone looks interesting so you move closer to them while pretending to get a drink. Just then your partner says, "Hey! I bet you two would like to talk about your Amazon purchases together, wanna talk about your latest delivery?" ... Gee thanks babe, maybe I did want to talk about the face cream I just got, I absolutely did NOT want you saying that! Now it's awkward and I want to go home. Are you starting to see how intrusive we can be with our kids? We don't need to be this way, there is a better way.
All you have to do is observe and wait quietly
Now I realized, I can support my children in participating in fun experiences in a different way. I just observe and wait quietly, that’s it! Observing and staying quiet gives my kids space and time they need to make and execute a plan. In fact, I give so much time and space that we can spend an hour at the park just looking at bark. If they want to spend an hour looking at bark, so be it! I'm prioritizing their interests, autonomy, mood, energy, and confidence. Eventually, they will grow into teenagers and adults who can decide what they like and want to do, then make and execute a plan based on their interests. For me, that is worth the boredom of looking at bark for an hour. haha jk let's be honest. Less whining and tantruming makes the boredom of "bark watching" for an hour worth it. I kid, I kid.
So, the next time you do something fun with your child, don’t ask them what they want to do. Try to quietly observe and wait instead. They will answer the question eventually and they might surprise you with what they come up with!