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My discipline experiment taught me more than it did my kids

It was supposed to be an experiment, a week where I would, incognito, command my sons like the captain of a ship, expecting action without prefacing my requests with the word “please.” The results revealed something I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. It turns out that most of the problems I’d had with my kids arguing about chores started with me.

The inspiration came from an article I’d written about a school in Charlotte, North Carolina, that had banned teachers from saying “please.” The instructional method, known as “No-Nonsense Nurturing,” claimed to give kids positive reinforcement and clear boundaries, which seemed like a genius idea for in the home. I was eager to see what results I’d have, and — if I’m honest — all too happy to experiment secretly on my children.

Day 1

Today was filled with mistakes. I am a please-aholic, a please-hole if you will. I say please even when please isn’t necessary. Like when it was time to get my almost-18-year-old up for school. He’s days away from turning 18! What the hell am I doing even waking him to begin with, let alone asking him to “please wake up”? I need to rethink my mom skills.

As my 16-year-old was walking out the door to the bus stop, I reminded him to text me when he found out what time he got off work tonight.

“Hey, please, no, not please. I didn’t mean ‘please.’ Just let me know what time you’re off tonight, okay?” I said. Damn it. Has “please” become an automatic filler word in every sentence I say to my kids?

I must do better tomorrow.

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Day 2

“I need you to wash the dishes after dinner,” I told my youngest son shortly after school. I was firm, and direct, but not mean.

“Okaaaay,” he replied. He had a wide-eyed look as if I’d just yelled at him for being alive. This was his passive-aggressive way of letting me know he was irritated with me. For a moment I was tempted to tell him I’m experimenting with direct communication, and will go back to my regularly scheduled requests once the week is over, but I didn’t.

Instead, I smiled and walked to my oldest son’s room. I knocked first because even if I’m not saying please, I learned long ago that walking in a teenage boy’s room unannounced was traumatizing for all parties involved. That’s something you don’t want to experience twice.

“You room smells like fermented gym socks,” I told him. I think I smiled and said “Hey” before I nagged, but I can’t be sure. “Clean up in here and when you’re done, take out the trash for me.” 

I felt more in charge somehow, more firm in my authority.

“All right,” he replied. He didn’t even flinch. That was almost too easy.

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Day 5

Days 3 and 4 were just like day 2, except my youngest gave me less shit about telling him what to do, which I liked.

I’ve also noticed something else that’s pleasing about the no-please thing: I no longer feel like I’m begging my kids to help around the house. Granted, I haven’t really used this new super power for anything other than chores, but I definitely feel that when I speak, the kids are quicker to listen.

Light bulb moment: Maybe all the exhaustive negotiating about housework was actually my fault? By saying “please” before telling the kids what I needed them to do, was I inadvertently telling them they had a choice in the matter?

Day 6

My dad arrived in town yesterday, in preparation for my oldest son’s 18th birthday. I decided not to tell him about my experiment — mostly because I think he’d tell the kids.

When we came back from the airport (and a quick stop at Whole Foods) I made the kids help me with the groceries. Instead of: 

“Hey boys! Can you please help me with the grocery bags?” 

I said: 

“Boys! Help me carry the groceries!” 

Not only did they help, they came to my aid quicker than normal. Interesting.

Day 7

I was so busy celebrating my oldest son’s 18th birthday yesterday that I totally forgot to keep tabs on my experiment efforts.

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From what I remember, between laughter, cake, presents and a night of poker (my son’s initiation into manhood) was this one moment where the proper use of “please” finally dawned on me. I needed to borrow my younger son’s phone charger because I couldn’t find mine. This was a true request, one that deserved an introduction of “please” to show that he had the ability to choose, and that I was polite enough to remember it.

“Absolutely,” he said. He was happy to help, and I was grateful he was so willing to share.

Day 8

This morning I told the kids what I had done over the past week. Neither of them had really noticed a difference.

“You didn’t think I was being rude?” I asked.

“Not really. Maybe a bit bossy, but that’s normal,” my youngest replied.

More: School lets parents change their kids’ grades if they don’t like them


My experiment wasn’t life-changing. Not really. It was, however, illuminating. Using “please” in every direction didn’t make me sound more polite as I had believed. Instead, it diluted my instructions and made them seem optional to my kids.

From now on, I’ll be more thoughtful about how I communicate with them. If there is an expectation, I won’t use “please” to soften the blow or create a false sense of choice. “Please” forevermore will be a word kept on reserve, used only when I’m asking for something in kindness, not when I’m telling my children to do a chore.

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