It seems that all through my childhood, my siblings and I would ask questions that start with “Can I.. ” and we’d be corrected to ask “May I .. ”
So the other night, our daughter did it… she asked “Can I have some more dinner?”.
And so our dinner table conversation turned into a Socratic discussion – not an uncommon event in our household. We embrace the idea of using real world experiences and turning them into talking points from which our children can learn.
So through various navigational aides, we guided the conversation to help them understand the difference between ‘can‘ and ‘may‘.
We helped them understand that ‘can’ has to do with ones ability to do something. “Can I jump up and down?” You either can or you can’t – it’s ability driven.
While the word ‘may’ implies that you are asking for permission. “May I have a piece of cake?” It’s asking for permission to have a piece, and says nothing about your ability to get the cake.
So we took this “Can I… “ and “May I… “ conversation a step further, and related it to the words, ‘would‘ and ‘could‘.
The kids actually startled me that they were able to see the connection right away – that ‘could‘ relates to ability, and ‘would‘ relates to permission. The correlation isn’t always a direct correlation, but served our conversation fairly well, so that we could see that questions like “Could she eat all that pie?‘ is ability driven, while “Would she like to eat all the pie?” is permission driven.
And through this, we highlighted a very important step that extends upon the idea of ability and permission, and amounts to a very important question that we all ask ourselves each and every time we are deciding to do something, and that is “Should I…?‘
‘Should‘ is a very important reflection that makes us self-analyze the decisions we make, and forces us as logical creatures to make decisions on whether or not the decision is right for us.
For instance, if you have a banana cream pie, and you see your dad sitting in the chair snoring, you could have your mom’s permission, and you certainly have the ability, but the real question you have to think about is, are there going to be consequences?
So we may have the ability , and we may even have permission to do something… but the real question is, should we be doing this?
The kids enjoyed the lesson, and it ultimately helped them understand the difference between the two questions, and as a bonus, realized that there’s a third question to consider. Maybe this will help you with talking points with your kids, or at least understand the difference better yourself :)