“Have to?” Are you sure about that?

I’m gearing up for a five-day retreat in which I’ll study Nonviolent Communication Mediation intensively. As many of you know, I work as a mediator and Shelly and I use the insights of Nonviolent Communication, based on the work of Marshall Rosenberg, in our work here at Awake Parent.

One of my favorite insights, or, “reframes,” as my girlfriend likes to call it, is taking the phrase “I have to…” and rephrasing it as, “I choose to…because I want…” So, for example, “I have to go to this stupid job I hate,” might become something like, “I choose to keep this job because the salary affords me things I want and need, like health insurance, and the peace of mind that comes with knowing I have reliable income.”

Wow–what a difference a little phrasing makes! In the first example, I’m a victim of circumstance, and some outside force is “making” me go to work. In the second, I acknowledge a) that I am making a choice (after all, I am), and all the reasons I keep making that choice.

Now what about with the young people in our lives? What might be another way of communicating something we aren’t giving them a choice about?

Let’s try some of these:

You have to clean your room.
You have to brush your teeth every day.
You have to go to bed now.

How do you feel when someone tells you you “have to” do something? My first internal response is, “No, I don’t.” I think  that’s the part of me that loves and needs the joy and beauty of freedom. This need for autonomy is something we all have. And, as convenient as it might be to tell our kids they “have to” do something, I think some different ways of phrasing it can open opportunities for more connection, more understanding, and enabling them to develop a deeper and more nuanced way of engaging with the world.

See what you think of these:

Let’s clean up your room. Or, Do you like your room the way it is? Would you like some help straightening it up? Or, Would you like to clean your room now, or after dinner?

Brushing your teeth every day takes away the bacteria that make plaque that make holes in your teeth. Can you imagine what it would be like to try to chew your food if your teeth had holes in them? Do you know what the dentist does to fix your teeth when you get a cavity?

It’s bedtime. Or, It’s 8:30. Or, I want to make sure you get enough sleep so that you have the energy to do all you want to do tomorrow.

I’m getting tired. Please tell me that by now, I don’t need to explain in great detail why the second options might go farther in creating the connections you want with your children. And above all, don’t tell me that I “have to.”

Seriously, what are you telling yourself or your children you or they “have to” do?  Are you willing to try phrasing it differently so you don’t “have to” do anything?

Please let me know how it goes.

In freedom,


Patrick McMillan
Patrick McMillan

Dear Jill,
I know that what you are saying about re-phrasing works in a wonderful way. I have been a stay at home dad with my two boys for over eight years and have been using this technique for quite some time. Rather than tell my kids what I DON"T WANT them to do, I have practiced speaking in terms of what I WANT them to do, and more importantly, what THEY WANT. I have never enjoyed being told that I "have to" do something and I know my kids don't like it either, and I have found that when I turn it into a "what do you want to do" they feel much better. It's almost like a sales technique I learned years ago. "Do you want to pay cash or put it on a credit card?" When it becomes a "want to" rather than a "have to" we all feel better.

Thanks for posting and sharing this!

Patrick McMillan


Thanks, Patrick. I enjoyed your response. Your "Cash or credit card?" reference reminds me of when I first learned that marketing insights had a lot to offer in the parenting realm. I was wanting a way to contain my then-two-ish-year-old at a campsite, for fear he'd run off into the woods. The big log didn't interest him until I invited him to "ride the choo-choo log." Then we got several minutes of him staying in one place.