Don’t Tell Your Kids What To Do!

I was brought up in an environment where failure was an option. My family was big on letting us explore and figure things out for ourselves, on our own. We only got instructions when an adult needed particular assistance. Only when my mom asked for the third plate on the cupboard or for the sewing scissors inside the kit did we get direction as to where things were and how to get them. The rest of the time she would not give me the step by step breakdown of tasks just a general idea and an estimated time of completion. She never expected me to drop what I was doing to help her unless it was an emergency or safety concern.

My husband, on the other hand, was given direction and guidance all the time. He was told how to do it, when to do it, who to consult with and to do it now. [Disclaimer: At least that’s how he made it sound to me and what I have recalled witnessing supports it.] This method of performing tasks restricted his creativity and authority, giving him the impression that when fielding a request it had to be done per a particular specification and immediately. He taught himself failure was not an option based on their reactions to his hits and misses. He learned to react and not to think or figure out a course of action for himself. I don’t think his parents or elders did it on purpose. They sacrificed his self-sufficiency and assertiveness for the sake of saving time. The horrifying part is that some teachers and child care professionals do this too. They may not even notice they are doing it!

As an adult, he barks an order and expects people to drop everything and run to his aid, the same way he used to be approached when he was younger. Although consciously he doesn’t mean to be rude, he appears to always be in a rush, on a mad dash to get stuff done in a time frame that doesn’t support the task. More than once he has set me and others to fail per his specifications or lack there of because he assumes there is only his way of doing things. Life my friends doesn’t work this way. I’m not absolved of blame either since my parent’s approach is too open ended for him which adds to his frustration. When I ask him for assistance he asks more questions than I can answer, even for a simple task. If I do something for him I always do it “wrong” even if the outcome is the one he expected. I find myself trying to find a middle ground where we can coexist because his programming is so ingrained he can’t see the issues well enough to correct them. Clearly my observations are not appreciated when there is a failure involved and he expects nothing but perfection from me even though he half asses things all the time.

Because he was taught to drop what he was doing and run, he resented the implication that whatever he was doing didn’t matter. Therefore his first reaction is to push back on the request made to save his time. An exchange between us reads like this:

Me: Hey dude, I know how to do X, chill. I’ve done X many times before. I’m not asking you to reinvent the wheel. Just do it.

Him: But I worked today!

Me: So did I!

Him: But I worked harder!

Me: Do like Elsa and let it go! (Walks away)

Him: Fine, but I will do it my way (and badly) so you won’t ask me again.

Sound familiar? This unhelpful attitude coupled with a lack of independent thinking can be daunting to me when I have to work with intransigent people. They are everywhere! Some of my peers make requests too cumbersome to address instead of optimizing the mechanism that would yield them a faster answer. I see it day in and day out. Employees are paid to think yet they replicate without discrimination. The processes of every day tasks are set in stone inside their minds to the point they are stuck thinking it is their way or the highway; there is no respite, no other way to comply. By doing so they have robbed the participant of the ability to make a choice to own the task and its outcome. My boss calls it delegation without authority.

For most tasks there is more than one way to successfully execute the commands needed to complete the request. You and your progeny are better off exploring alternate ways to do daily tasks in a safe and encouraging environment. Teach them and yourself to accept more than one correct solution and to not judge efforts based on bias. Critically analyze what has been done and what could be done to increase the wins and minimize the losses. None of the quintessential processes of life are above being questioned or improved. Lead by example and mind your attitude towards work and project management in all aspects of life; always ask for the requirements and expectations before executing a plan.

I heard a story recently about a woman that was learning how to cook a pot roast for her husband based on her family’s recipe. One of the steps was to cut the sides of the roast and throw them away. When she asked her mother about the step, her mother told her that was how her mother had done it. The girl, unsure of the need for this instruction, asks her grandmother about it. The sweet old lady replied: The pan wasn’t big enough honey so I had to cut the sides. The moral of the story is to always ask why until you are satisfied with the answer; don’t follow instructions blindly. When we are taught how to do things or believe without questioning, we end up tossing a good chunk of our roast away due to ignorance and conformance. No one wants to be told years later than their efforts were misguided or unfounded because culturally speaking the knowledge imparted was inaccurate or obsolete. It is up to the parents to figure out if their approach is the correct one especially it is the only one they know.

Too much guidance can turn a kid bossy, and I’m not talking about the naturally assertive. These kids will hinder the progress of others by stepping in and taking over. If you have one of these kids be careful when you are giving them instruction and direction. You may very well be the reason why the feel the need to boss other people around, not because they mean it, but because that’s how they were raised. They will blame others for their shortcomings because they were not taught how to cope with failure and to accept the consequences of their actions; they were given the answers so they don’t believe they share the responsibility. Always give room for a child to question a command or raise a concern, to think for themselves. Kids are excellent learning partners and very forgiving teachers. They may and will surprise you.

Word of caution: If you are unforgiving when they make mistakes and chastise or patronize them constantly they will do the same to others thinking this is normal behavior. Reprimand and coach, don’t just reprimand and order compliance.

To help keep the peace at home I have started to ask my husband to disengage from the argument and look at what he needs rather than how he wants me to do it. For my sake, I refuse to help anyone who gives me super detailed instructions that are difficult to understand or complete. However, I never just do things my way either. If you ask me to not feed your kids McNuggets I’ll play ball. All I ask is that people not complain when their helpers use their set of rules to complete a basic task like folding laundry or getting you water from the fridge. There is no reason why we should waste so much energy controlling high entropy systems. The more ways to do something, the more opportunities there are to both succeed and fail. We live, we learn.


In all my years around kids and raising kids, not my own but as a part of the village, there is nothing I have experienced that hurts a child more than being told what to do or not being thanked for helping. No one likes to feel like a mindless drone on autopilot. Let them take action and control of the situation. Don’t boss them around or plan their lives! Avoid burdening them with unobtainable goals and expectations of greatness. Let them roam free, eat dirt and ask questions. Teach them to not depend on you. Society and future generations of spouses will thank you.

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