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A grandmother in Arkansas says her adult children have great difficulty telling their children what to do. They turn instructions — more accurately, what they think are instructions — into questions and then wonder why their kids don't seem to appreciate their timidity.

Grandma's email made me think of a habit I have noticed among people a generation or more younger than myself. To wit, when they order food in a restaurant, they ask if they are allowed to have whatever they want. For example, when ordering a hamburger, instead of saying, "I'll have a hamburger" or "I'd like a hamburger, please," they ask, "Can I have a hamburger?"

What's with that? You're in a hamburger joint. The word hamburger is printed clearly on the menu. The owner of said joint is obviously in the business of making money selling hamburgers. Setting aside, for the moment, that "may I have" is grammatically correct, why are you asking if you can have a hamburger? Has some hamburger salesperson ever denied you, as in "No hamburger for you. Try again"?

It occurred to me that there may be some generational connection between asking a person behind a fast food counter if you are allowed to order an item that is clearly printed on the menu and asking children "how about" questions that end in "OK?"

Example: "How about helping Mommy pick up these toys now, OK?"

Is the person who orders food passively also or someday going to be a parent who gives passive instructions to his or her kids? That's where the analogy breaks down because whereas the hamburger worker isn't going to deny the hamburger, a child can be counted on to defy the passive non-instruction. He doesn't want to, it's not fair, he didn't put them all there, or just downright "no."

I suppose I shouldn't be pointing this sort of thing out to parents because it's why I have a job. It's why, when I counsel with parents, I spend lots of time telling them how to talk to children, teaching them how to sound like authority figures.

"If you want Billy to pick up his toys, simply say, "Billy, I want you to pick up your toys." And then, I tell said parents, "Don't stand there, waiting. That invites push-back. Just walk away."

Believe it or not, I occasionally have a parent tell me, "Oh, I don't think I can do that."

"Why not?" I ask.

"Well, I mean, it sounds, well, harsh."

Immediately, I know I'm working with someone who asks waitpersons if she is allowed to order a hamburger. Harsh is a word occasionally used to describe my approach to helping children eventually become functioning adults, when in fact, harsh is what's likely to happen if one doesn't use "my" approach (it's not actually "mine" in any sense). As in, screaming and other lunacies.

Respect is not an entitlement. It isn't deserved; it's earned. People in positions of authority earn respect by acting like they know what they want. That begins with making oneself perfectly clear, as in, "I'd like a hamburger."

And then, of course, "Thank you."

Write to family psychologist John Rosemond at The Leadership Parenting Institute, 420 Craven St., New Bern, N.C. 28560 or email [email protected]. Due to the volume of mail, not every question will be answered.

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