Ask the Question: “What Can I Do for You?” (Dr. James Sutton)

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Children and teens can sometimes be suspicious of the motives of adults toward them. Here’s a simple strategy that can be used by teachers, counselors and other child-service professionals to demonstrate good faith and intent. Parents can find it helpful with their own kids or with other youngsters as part of volunteer work. And, of course, some parents are child-service professionals, also.

JohnWoodenLegendary UCLA Coach John Wooden knew people as well as he knew basketball. His authentic generosity endeared him quickly to others. If a young man failed to make the team, Coach Wooden would work with him to find a way he could participate and contribute while a student at the university. “What can I do for you?” is something Coach Wooden asked often.

And he always meant it.


Part of a Good Assessment

JDSphotoAs a school psychologist and later a private-practice consulting psychologist, I did a lot of assessments and interviews with youngsters presenting emotional or behavioral difficulties. In some cases, these kids were referred through law enforcement or the family court. Some kids were NOT excited to see me. (I learned to leave my necktie in the car. It’s no fun being strangled with your own clothing, but that’s another story.) This little strategy worked pretty well with the tough kids, but it worked well with the withdrawn and tender kids, also.

During the assessment, generally near the end of it, I would ask, “If I could do something for you, what would it be?” I would then grin and quickly explain that it had to be something legal, ethical and moral—and cost a dollar or less.



The tough kids were generally caught off-guard by the question. They were expecting me to do something to them, not for them. It was often the case they couldn’t think of anything right away. A little patience would pay off, and I discovered that a youngster’s response was often diagnostically significant.


Doable Stuff

It often surprised me just how doable many of these requests were:

A middle school boy asked if I would teach him how to work the combination to his school locker. He had been carrying all of his books to every class.

Another young man was living in a group home after his mother passed away. He simply asked if I could help him get a small picture of her. Grandmother had taken down all of his mother’s pictures after the funeral. It took almost three weeks to get Mom’s picture from her. It was an obituary card from the funeral. The boy showed it to everyone who would take a look, then he tacked it up on the wall next to his bed.

A young lady began crying as soon as I asked the question. All she wanted was a decorative plate from her grandmother’s house. She had always admired that plate as it hung on the wall in the living room. When Grandmother died, all the children divided her belongings among themselves. They had not given thought to the grandkids. It only took a phone call for the girl to get the plate. How easy was that?

A fifth grader asked if I could get the chain fixed on his go kart. His parents were divorced; the go kart was a birthday gift from his father. Finances being tight, Mom could not afford the repair. We were able to put the touch on a kind-hearted tractor mechanic. He not only fixed the chain in a few minutes, he received a blessing in doing so.

Attempts to honor requests like these might not carry great therapeutic value in every case, but they almost always boost rapport and help with trust. It can make a tremendous difference in future visits with a youngster.

So give it a try. Ask the question.

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