WHAT IS “OKAY” AND HOW IS IT USED?
First and foremost, “okay” is a noun, adjective, adverb, and interjection (e.g. “Okay! I get it!”). It is also an “Americanism”, a folk word adopted into our language that has basis in English but no real history. Therefore, it is a rather arbitrary word that can be used in many, many contexts to mean many, many different things.
Humans learn from language in what’s called “derived relations”. In simple terms, when we’re young, someone will hold up a toy dog and say “dog.” They will point to a picture of a dog and say “dog.” While going for a walk and spotting the neighbor’s poodle in the yard they’ll say, “There’s the doggie!” These derivations happen because “dog” as a word is arbitrary. Three letters. The first example is a toy, the second a photo, and the third an actual dog. However, as children we begin to derive connections among them and discover how all of these represent the canine species.
Also, all three could be different breeds. “Dog”, therefore, relies on relations developed over time. The more arbitrary a word, the more relations must develop to make up the difference. For example, “vegetable” requires more derivations than “broccoli”.
“Dog” doesn’t mean one thing only. Relations tend to group from the more personal to the more foreign. For instance, I grew up with a drooling, loud, smelly, vicious, loyal dog who, for much of our time together, was bigger than me. If I were to hear arbitrarily something like, “They have a dog,” my mind would be more inclined to draw from my hard-adopted relations, and I would be caught off guard when I meet their dog and it’s a tiny, yippy thing that’s quite kind.
We overlook this use of language severely when raising children, and even though contemporary research tells us plenty about how language can be used to help children grow in healthy ways, our own methods (brought to us by relations from our parents, etc.) are mildly inflexible. What we say matters more than we think because thoughts can draw from more context than words can. A thought can be filtered from a history of experiences and derived relations and end up with a simple stretch of words such as, “There’s a dog.”
What does this have to do with “okay”?
Well, what, exactly, makes something “okay” or “not okay”?
Think about that for a moment.
Did your mind tell you something like, “It depends on the situation”?
That’s right. It sure does.
For an example, someone responding to the question “How are you?” might answer, “I’m okay.” It’s now up to us to evaluate their inflection, tone, posture, and our previous experiences with this person to derive what okay means in this context. It could mean things are on the upswing, or they’re hiding how miserable they are, or they’re busy and don’t want to be bothered with silly questions.
If you ask me how the two-week old soup looks, I might answer, “It’s okay.” I might mean that it’s good enough to still eat. But your standards are likely different than mine. What’s okay for me might not be okay for you.
Let’s transfer this to the adult/child relationship. Is it “okay” for you to eat a chocolate bar before dinner? Again, this question becomes arbitrary because you might be on a diet, so no, it’s “not okay.” And I might think it is okay because as an adult we really can choose what we want to eat and when. We, personally, derive what “okay” means to us when it comes to chocolate bars and dinner, and even though we might disagree on whether or not the candy ought to be eaten, what’s okay or not okay can really only be from the perspective of “I” and “you”.
UNDOING OUR OWN WORK
We might ask our child, “Are you okay going to sit on Santa’s lap by yourself?”
What, in this context, does “okay” mean? Perhaps “confident”, “feeling safe”, or “capable”.
So, our child derives that “okay” is similar to- or synonymous with- confidence, safety, and capability.
The following day, on the playground, we see our child climbing up the slide from the bottom and we rush over to them, pull them off, and shout, “That’s not okay!”
But doesn’t “okay” have to do with confidence, safety, and capability? Now our child is confused because they were feeling quite confident in their ability, and they felt quite safe, even if we didn’t. For us, however, “okay” in this context means something different, referring to “meeting social norms about how to use the playground”, “the safest way to use the equipment”, and “worrying us that you’ll get hurt”.
The following day we ask, “Did you have an okay day at school?” If our child is deriving “meeting norms”, “being safe”, and “managing worry” from “okay”, then they might confirm your evaluation. If the child is deriving “capable” and “confident”, then maybe they struggled in Math and Science, so no, it was not an okay day.
Here, though, you really want to know how they felt, overall, about their day, as in, “How was your mood and attitude throughout the day while at school?”
Overtime, we come to learn all that “okay” can mean and we internalize its usefulness. But children, especially young children, are learning all day every day. When they hear “That’s not okay”, they’re forced to use their experience with the word to understand what it means to them- and then to you- in this context.
“Did you think running out the door by yourself was okay?” is not informative. “Okay” can be so many things that undoubtedly, in some form, yes, they thought it was okay. A different way of saying this is, “I worry about you when you run off, and leaving without me can be unsafe because you could get hit by a car.”
This is longwinded. It’s work. So, no wonder we like “okay”, because it can be used in place of longer explanations. Adults have derived so many associations with “okay” that they’re likely to be able to discern what you meant from this arbitrary response. Yet, because we aren’t specific about why we’re upset, a child begins to internalize the function of the word “okay”. What’s “okay” becomes less and less clear.
We can further this by examining the phrase “It’s not okay…” as in, “It’s not okay to hit your brother.”
What is the “it’s” and what is the “okay”? From a developmental perspective, hitting your brother is actually quite “okay”: it asserts dominance, sets boundaries, and is an expression of internal emotional experience. The “it’s” may be perceived as relating to the child’s predisposition to form boundaries with their siblings. If that’s the case, “It’s not okay” could be internalized as, “Your desire to take care of yourself is bad.”
ENDING SENTENCES WITH “OKAY?”
The next step is to look at how we might use it at the end of a sentence to turn it into a question, such as, “Don’t go on the playground, okay?”
And just what the heck is “okay” supposed to mean in this context?
Is the playground okay or not okay? Is not going onto the equipment “okay”? Is listening to this mandate “okay”?
I hear this use of the word very often when an adult talks to a child, but I rarely hear this when one adult talks to another (although it does happen). Often, the function of “okay” here is to lessen the impact of hearing a mandate, and it’s part of the current young-parent’s cultural shift away from parent-as-warden and towards parent-as-friend.
This shift is neither good nor bad; it’s simply a change of the times. Egalitarian parenting is possible, yet many people use subtle changes in language to achieve this, and it’s worth, now that we’re a couple of decades into this new style, to begin troubleshooting.
When you end your mandate with “okay?” you’re essentially handing over the validity of your asking to the child. It’s like, “What do you think about me asking you not to go onto the playground?”
The response to, “Don’t do that, okay?” for a child could be, “No, it’s not okay! I’ve been helpful at home. I’m safe. I need to run around. I’m very wound up.” Unknowingly, you’ve created more tension between you and your child than if you’d simply said, “Don’t go on the playground.”
TRY IT OUT
You may be thinking, “So what? Is this a big deal?”
So, experiment a little. Try using “okay” with your kids for a week and pay close attention to their responses- not whether or not they do the same behavior again- we have to get over thinking that if we tell a kid not to do something that they’ll learn it without reminders.
However, the following week I invite you to get specific: Use “Doing your homework is part of being a responsible student,” instead of, “Slacking off is not okay,” and see what changes. My guess is you’ll get grumpiness, defensiveness, or the comment will be shut down as it typically is, but test that against the less nuanced response from “not okay.” “Not okay” typically trains a patterned response, such as, “Sorry…” or a simple nod, or perhaps a verbal battle. I bet you’ll notice getting specific elicits a broader spectrum of responses. We want to see this because it means the arbitrariness is undone.
When you replace “okay” with a valuable connection to self, then you increase awareness. “Okay” is a judgement, albeit an arbitrary one. Naming something as unsafe, rude, scary, etc. helps define context. For your child, they probably weren’t thinking when they ran out of the store. Saying it’s “not okay” is similar to saying “is bad”, and what’s bad about running?
Say what you mean, which is, “You’re short, and people in cars might not see you. I’m scared when you run away.”
Also notice how the examples I give refrain from any sort of accusation. Saying “I’m scared” is much different from “That’s not okay.” Children come equipped with empathy. Empathy is actually how we learn as kids, by tuning into facial expressions, emotions, and mimicking behavior. “That’s not okay” leaves much to the imagination of a young child. Then we get mad at them, shouting, “You never listen!”
Yes, they were listening. You just weren’t giving them much to work with.
Try watching your use of language, okay?
About the author:
John Powell is a psychotherapist and Reiki energy healer. He has a private practice in Burlington, Vermont in the same building as Avalon Natural Medicine. He uses Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Bowenian Family Systems, and focuses on working with adolescents, young adults, couples, and families on issues such as parenting, careers, anxiety, depression, and addiction.
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