Green Eggs or Ham?

When my eldest son was little, I’d pick him up from play-group and we’d walked happily home discussing what had happened that  day, what we were going to do or where we were going to go or the many adventures of Superman.

Mother and small boy happy and glad to see each other – until…

“OK – so, what would you like for lunch?”

He’d have a think before he answered and then he might say – “I’d like chips”, or “I’d like potatoes and chicken,” or “I’d like ice-cream.”

So, I’d say – “No, no – you can’t have ice-cream or chips for lunch, you need to have something that’s healthy.”

“Like potatoes and chicken?”

“OK, like potatoes and chicken – you can have that later.  Not for lunch.”

“But I want it for lunch!”

“Well, you can’t have it for lunch – choose something else – how about beans on toast or a cheese sandwich?”

“But I don’t want that!  I want chicken and potatoes or ice-cream…”

Anyway, you get the picture – he’d be angry and upset and I’d be angry and upset and both of us would be full of self-righteous indignation as we stomped home.

And then, one day I finally realised what was happening.

He was answering the question I’d asked.

Which would have been fine except that I was actually asking a different question than the one I was forming with my words.

I was asking him what he wanted to eat for lunch and, as he was a small child, he was taking me at my word and answering the question.

The fact was, though, what I was really asking him was, “What you would like for lunch from  a) the food at present in our house and b) food present which also satisfies my criteria for what constitutes a healthy lunch.”

So, I changed my questions.

“OK – what could you like for lunch – eggs, or cheese or bananas?”

“Ham sandwich or peanut butter?”

“Chicken noodle soup or cheese on toast?”

And because he was as reasonable as all small children, he immediately adapting by answering the question and choosing between the options I presented.

Problem solved.  Happy walking home for mother and boy after that.  Back to talking about important things like Superman instead of bickering about lunch.

As adults we ask – and answer – questions and unconsciously try to interpret the background nuances and circumstances and expect others to do the same.

We rely on other people to do some of our thinking without our ever stating what we really think – “I can’t believe she asked me to do that!”

We rely on others to make it alright for us – “How could he accept that second cup of tea I offered – didn’t he know I was tired?”

To second guess our needs – “I know I offered but…”

Maybe we should try being more accurate when we express ourselves?

Would it prevent more misunderstandings?

First, though, we’d have to know what we want to say ourselves – and maybe that’s the really difficult part?

What do we truly want to say?


  1. I remember learning this lesson with my son and it has stuck with me. Even now with adults in my life I apply the same principle – why complicate life by expecting people to mind read and come up with the answers/choices we want. If there is only beans and toast for lunch ask who wants beans on toast is what I say 😉

  2. Its a good point, but the real hero of this piece is that little boy. He sounds amazing (and probably really handsome too)

  3. I like the thought behind this post – regarding being clear about what we are asking – to help avoid confusion and minimize those feelings of being misunderstood. Or taken advantage of. Or over-compensating.

    It works in reverse, too. My sister always asks “Is there anything you want from the store?” but what she really means is “I’m going to the store and I’m tired and in a hurry and don’t really feel like getting you anything at all, but feel like I have to ask you, so I’m asking you.” I’ve tried talking to her about it, and telling her that I’m perfectly okay with her “not asking” sometimes, but she doesn’t get it. In the absence of her having the ability to only ask when she means it, I’ve had to settle for what I call my “4 in 1 rule”. About every 4th time, I’ll actually tell her what I need from the store. The other 3 times, whether I need something or not, the answer is always “no”. It isn’t a perfect system, but it seems to work for her. It would be so much easier if she read your post. (big smile)

    With my son, he had ADHD (to the nth power) so I had to learn very early on that specific choices were our only option. He taught me this lesson the hard way. When he was about four years old, I told him that he could play in the back yard for a few minutes, but “please don’t get off the patio.” When I went to check on him a few minutes later, he was nowhere to be found. Of course, he WAS still on the patio. **Roof** Grinning from ear to ear. I learned to be specific.

    Thanks for “being specific” about your message, and for sharing this thought with us so we can figure out how to apply it to our lives, (and for jiggling loose that mental image of my little imp sitting on the patio roof, extremely pleased with himself, and how he taught me a big lesson in the process). Be careful what you ask, or you just might end up with green eggs and ham!

  4. What a wonderful dialogue. Kids teach us so much 😉 Beans and toast sound really good to me…we don’t serve such a dish in the US. What sort of beans? Refried? Or like pork and beans?

  5. I believe this is true…sometimes we ask something to be polite but want a certain answer. Giving your son 2 options sounded like great solution and the communication was much clearer. Thanks for coming by and giving me a “like’ .

  6. I remember learning this less the hard way, too! I learned pretty early in my teaching career to ask children the REAL question, and to avoid fake questions!
    I still hear people asking kids “Do you want to come in now?” when they mean, “You need to come in now.”
    We should absolutely learn this lesson with everyone in our lives! People will answer the questions that we ask, not the questions to which we subtly allude!

  7. The art of communication is a tough one to learn, but so worth the effort. And it’s so true that many of our questions are intuitive/assumption based rather than direct, which leads to a stupid amount of confusion and frustration.

    Well said!

    1. It seems so obvious in retrospect – just not as obvious in the moment though! Thanks for answering the ‘beans’ question! I have no idea why I didn’t describe them as baked beans – after all it is what it says on the tin! Thanks!

  8. How wonderful to be reminded of the years of lessons learned from wonderful English teachers in elementary, junior high,high school and college–and many seminars and lectures over the decades! I love the example of the mother forgetting to provide clear options from which her son could happily choose. We do that way too often with others around the world and thereby trip up our efforts for peacebuilding.

  9. Good post.

    When I babysat, I gave specific choices:

    * Do you want a red or blue cup for your juice?
    * PJ’s first . . . or teeth?
    * Blue bib or green bib?

    They feel “involved in the discussion” and more cooperative as a result.

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