Children become adults by practicing. Some of this practicing involves having the right to make choices, even bad and painful choices. For parents who have not learned to back down, we offer the seven magic words. These are words derived from our study of choice theory (Glasser, 1998, 2002). The good news is that by using these words parents can share their thoughts, feelings, and wishes with their children in way that might help a rebellious child hear their viewpoint. The bad news is that after carefully expressing themselves, parents then acknowledge that ultimately, compliance is not mandatory. And there’s even more bad news: These words aren’t really magic and parents will need more than seven of them to make them work at all.
The seven magic words are a frame for direct, powerful, and noncontrolling communication. They are: “I want you. . . but it’s your choice.” These framing words allow parents to express whatever they want (we encourage positive words) while at the same time acknowledging their child’s power and right to self-determination. By explicitly acknowledging their children’s right to self-determination, parents may reduce their children’s need to prove their independence. Examples of the seven magic words in action include:
- I want you to stay clean and sober at the party tonight because I love you, and I know if you get caught, you might end up kicked off the basketball team, and also, your dad and I can’t trust you with the car if we know you drink, but of course I know I can’t control you, so it’s your choice.
- I want you to graduate from high school, go to college, have a great job, and get rich, but whether or not that happens is really up to you.
- You know I want you to be healthy, eat well, and exercise, but whether you do that is your business. I’ll help you any way I can, but it’s your choice.
As you can see, the magic words are a frame for parents to express their own beliefs and convictions. This technique allows parents to directly express heartfelt feelings, and even describe the consequences they fear, but to then turn the choice back over to the child.
Some parents will be disappointed with the seven magic words. They wish for true magic and true control. Instead, this frame merely offers an opportunity to briefly and succinctly communicate personal and family values directly to children. In many families, one of these values is to acknowledge and honor the children’s individual freedom and ultimate rights to choose how to live their lives. Most parents want their children to learn how to make responsible, life-enhancing choices.
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