Passive Voice: How it Will Make Your Child Cooperate

Have you ever told your child to do something and he or she just didn’t do it?

Have you ever asked them to help you with something and they just blatantly ignored you?

I know it happens to me all the time. It actually happened just this morning!

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Frustrating as it is, this is part of the dance between parents and children. We ask them for something, they do their own thing. We ask again, they do their thing. And so the wheel spins.

But today I want to offer you a nifty little trick that can help you get more cooperation from your kids, by simply changing the way you ask them. And that is The Power of The Passive Voice.

What is The Passive Voice

When we speak, no matter what we say, our sentences can have an active or a passive voice. Check out the following two sentences:

  • Danny ate the ice cream.
  • The ice cream was eaten by Danny.

Both sentences tell the same story about ice cream and someone called Danny. In both sentences, it’s clear that Danny ate the ice cream. But they tell the same story in different ways.

Me and m'boy

The first sentence tells the story in an active voice. Danny is the subject of the sentence and he’s doing an active action of eating.

The second sentence, however, tells the story in a passive voice. The ice cream is the subject here, it the action of eating is being done to it.

See the difference?

And you can do it with almost every sentence you can think of, as long as it has action.

Active: The dog ate my homework.

Passive: The homework was eaten by the dog.

Active: Michelle broke her leg on a ski trip.

Passive: Michelle’s leg was broken on a ski trip.

Active: I have a dream!

Passive: A dream was had!

How to use Passive Voice with your kids

OK OK. I know that you may think to yourself something like “this is a website about parenting, why is he blubbering about grammar??”

But the cool thing is that you can use passive voice intentionally to gain more cooperation from your children. All you need to do is tell them what needs to be done, instead of telling them what to do.

Let’s look at the following real-life example. As I’ve mentioned at the beginning of this post, only this morning I asked my boy to do something and he totally ignored it. Specifically, I asked him to arrange his bag for school because he has an electronics class today.

So, while he was staring at the TV, I told him “Please go and put the electronics stuff in your bag”. And he responded with… nothing. Didn’t say a word. So I asked him again. And once more. And I felt the anger rising through my stomach into my chest because I hate it when he’s ignoring me like that. Finally, I stood right in front of the TV screen and told him “I need to put the electronics stuff in your bag now”. And he was like “Your blocking the view!”.

Photo by Siavash Ghanbari

I felt angry and I didn’t want to stay angry and lash out so I took a step back and had a couple of long, relaxing belly breaths. Then I got his attention and told him “Look, we need to leave in ten minutes. Your electronics stuff needs to be in your bag so you can go to the class”.

See the difference? I bolded the relevant part where I moved to a passive voice.

You probably wonder how my boy reacted to that. Well, it’s no voodoo. I won’t lie to you and tell you how he promptly sprung to his feet and arranged his bag. But he did look at me and said: “Ok, I’ll do it, don’t worry”. And he did. Which was nice.

Again, the passive voice is not some child-controlling magic (you wish it was, though, right?). But I’ve seen time and time again how it helps children move from the opposition mode into a more cooperative more.

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Why does it work?

So why does it work at all? The thing about the passive voice is that it changes the power dynamics between you and your child.

When your child was born, you were in total control of his life (though granted – it felt the other way around, right?)

You were in charge of what he wears, what she eats, where they go. And as they grew bigger, things were pretty much the same. But then, around the age of two, children start to feel a sense of agency. In psychology, the sense of agency is defined as the “feeling of control over actions and their consequences” (you can read more about it in this paper by James Moore). In simple words, feeling a sense of agency is feeling that you have power to do things in the world.

You may know the phrase “Terrible Twos”. Heck, you may even felt it with your own kids. The Terrible Twos is when your child starts to be really stubborn and throws so many tantrums over so menial things that you lost count. And the reason for that is that it’s the age when a sense of agency starts to sink down.

Children at that age want a lot more control over their lives, and we can use it for our goals. By using the passive voice, we are showing them that they can control and do stuff on their own.

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When you tell your child “You need to put your socks on”, like I told my two-year-old daughter yesterday, you can expect her to feel belittled and powerless under a controlling force (that is you). This are the dynamics that are embedded in your voice.

But when you change it to “Your socks need to be on your feet”, something in the dynamics changes. Instead of giving an order you stated the situation and gave your child the opportunity to do something about it.

Think about it this way: when you use a passive voice like that, you are presenting your child with a problem he or she can solve. When they solve it they feel good about themselves, so you’re actually motivating them to do what you wanted them to do in the first place.

Here are some more examples of using the passive voice:

  • “Bath time is over” instead of “You need to get out of the bath”
  • “The dishes are still on the table, what can we do about it?” instead of “Put your dishes away”
  • “The TV needs to be off by 7 o’clock” instead of “Close the TV”

And that’s it. So next time you want your child to do something, trying shifting into a passive voice and see how things work out.

Featured Image: Photo by Ewa Pinkonhead

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