One of the most common questions any child I know asks her or his parents is a deceptively simple one: “Can I …?” This question is so common, so familiar, that we carry it with us into adulthood, and often address each other in the same way. We especially are prone to using this question when speaking with people who are in positions of authority.
Two passions of mine combine in wanting to take apart the meaning of this form of speech: my love of language, which includes the belief that words are never simply words; and my burning interest in transforming paradigms of power.
Why does a child ask this question of the adult? In my mind, it starts with the adult telling the child some version of “you can’t do this.” Once the authority about what the child can or cannot do rests with the adult, it becomes logically compelling that the child will ask the adult for permission in this particular way. Utterly seamless, and, in my way of seeing the world, physically incorrect.
What does the parent mean when saying “you can’t do this” to the child? Here is how I take it apart and explain it, using two different examples. First, “You can’t touch this outlet.” What I hear the parent saying in this case is this: “I am so afraid of what might happen if you touch this outlet, especially if you do it at some later time when I am not around to see the results, that I want to impress it upon you indelibly, so that you won’t even try to touch this outlet, ever. I know that your little body is completely capable of doing this, and I don’t have any trust that you would know how to assess the risk for yourself, that’s why I am telling you that you can’t.”
The other example is “You can’t watch TV now.” As in the case of the outlet, this isn’t technically accurate. If the child is old enough to move and push buttons, then the child is completely able to turn on the TV and watch it. It is only the nature of the relationship between the two people in question that would stop the child from trying. The adult is speaking as if they have the power to physically prevent the child from watching TV, instead of saying what remains implicit: “I absolutely don’t want you to watch TV. It’s so important to me, that I am ready to deliver negative consequences to you if you decide to watch TV despite my telling you that I don’t want you to do it.”
I still remember the many times, both as child and as adult, that I tried to think this through. Suppose the child turns on the TV anyway. What would the parent truly do then? Suppose the parent tells the child “You’re grounded for the next two days.” What, then, happens if the child leaves the house anyway and goes to a friend’s house to hang out. What would the parent do then? Assuming the child is completely free of fear of what the adult would do, how far could this continue before it escalates into physical violence? I understood, even as a child, that choosing not to do what I was told to do, or doing what I was told not to do, was a serious affront to my father.
So the child learns to say “Can I go outside now?” – which reaffirms the power difference – instead of saying: “I’d like to go outside now, are you OK with it?” – which rests on the assumption of a fundamental human equality between the two. The language continually reinforces the perception, usually shared by children and adults alike, although rarely spoken, that children don’t have full agency about the movement of their bodies. It is kept this way, because adults, most adults, believe it is their job and duty, out of care and love for their children, to be the ones to decide for the children what they do or don’t do.
This way of speaking and relating is continual, deeply built into the foundations of any power differences. This is where language and power become so intertwined. When the parent says “You can’t buy this toy,” two things happen at once. One is the affirmation of the power difference: the parent decides, the child obeys. The other is that the language doesn’t leave the parent with any agency, either, implying that it’s not the parent’s decision, more like a fact of life.
If we change the language pattern, we establish a different kind of relationship. Imagine what happens if, instead of the habitual “Can I?” the child were to approach the parent and say: “I’d like to buy this toy. Would you get it for me?” This way of speaking creates conditions that invite the parent to relate differently, from a place of taking personal ownership of the choice, because the parent is now going to talk about the parent’s choice, not about the child’s. When each person speaks about their own choice, the nature of the power between them shifts by necessity. That is a deep condition for dialogue.
Reclaiming Our Interdependent Choice
When I facilitate workshops, I tend to bring meticulous attention to the language used – by me no less than those who participate in the workshop. I am particularly attentive to language that any of us use that implies that I have any kind of power to make decisions for other people. When this happens, I often pause whatever the topic of the workshop is and zoom in on the language and its implications. I do this because those moments, to me, are golden opportunities to notice the ways we habitually continue to support the systems and norms that maintain the social order as it is, even when we know it doesn’t work, even when we are otherwise committed to transformation.
Every time a participant in a workshop or a meeting I facilitate says something seemingly innocuous such as “Can I ask a question?,” the internal dynamics of this question recapitulate the original power relations of childhood. In that question the person hands over their power to me: I become the authority to decide what they are going to do. I take every opportunity to engage in such moments, trying to be as creative as I possibly know, sometimes playfully so, to bring awareness to the moment.
Some of the time, what people do when they wake up to the way that they have been giving their power to others to decide for them is that they then decide to just go ahead and do whatever it is they want to do without checking with me or others. They recognize their choice, and forget their care, their existence as part of a web of relationships, where their actions have an effect on other people. Often this takes the form of saying something like: “Oh, I see what you mean, I don’t want to ask for permission, so I am just going to ask the question.” In those moments I become sadly aware of how much it would take for all of us to learn, again or for the first time, how to navigate with others the possible effects of our actions and make decisions together with them instead of either giving them the power (as in “Can I?”) or depriving them of the option of participating in the decision (as in “I’ll just do what I want”).
Given how little choice we had as children, how little choice we still experience in so much of life, it makes complete sense to me that being woken up to choice we would opt to assert it, drinking the nectar of freedom, for the moment, not wishing to limit that power by anything that comes from outside.
Learning to say: “I’d like to ask a question, would it work for you now, or would you rather I wait until after break?” opens up an entirely new world, unfamiliar to most of us. We then make room for both people, which allows everyone to have power. When I remember to ask things in this way, I feel the difference. I am aware of my own agency, of what I want, while being open to being affected by knowing where the other person is. I know that this kind of dialogue can be its own magic, its own exhilaration. Something about learning that my power and another’s power are not at odds, that power is not a zero sum, that we can co-create an outcome that we both benefit from, fills me with indescribable joy. It’s still fresh, experiencing it in action, still precious, still something I relish as if it’s for the first time. Even though I have facilitated untold numbers of people in getting to that spot, it’s entirely different when I remember myself, for myself and those I am with. I still, after some years of practice, forget much of the time and use the older construct, deeply embedded in my cells, habitually reinforced all around me. I long to remember at all times, as part of my overall dedication to the liberation of all.
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