You Don’t Say

“How can you not tell me when you are flunking English?!”
“Can’t you ever do anything right?”
“Do you really want to fail 8th-grade math and take it over again?!”

There is no answer that is going to be acceptable to anyone. I mean, would you go up to your parents and say, “I really want to fail beginning algebra so I can sit through units on order of operations and inequalities all over again”?

Of course not! What makes these so hard to answer is that they really aren’t questions at all. They’re accusations: You are flunking a class and didn’t care to tell me about it. (Given that my mom was angry and yelling and all but shaking me in an arm-bruising grip, it’s not surprising that I did not care to divulge the news.)

Because these are not questions, they are not really spoken to elicit answers. Woe to the literal-minded aspie child who tries to make up for the transgressions by actually attempting to answer, “I’m trying—”

“You certainly are! You’re a very trying child.”

What is being demanded is a promise that somehow everything will be made better. You wish that were so, too, and feel even more powerless to change the situation. Beyond feeling inadequate to the task at hand, you also know that attempts to communicate problems will also be met with anger, hostility, contradictory messages, and impossible demands. No matter what you do, you won’t be able to succeed.

How do you answer questions like that?

The answer is that you can’t. These are double-bind questions. The classic example of a double-bind question is the old, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” What makes it a double-bind is that it cannot be reasonably answered — one either says “Yes,” and then has admitted to beating [his] wife, or one says, “No,” and then has admitted that [he is] still beating his wife. That example is pretty easy to pick out as being a double-bind. A double-bind question is really a rhetorical statement phrased like a question.

But examples like those above are less-easily identified as being double-binds. They are usually delivered to children who have not yet developed the necessary critical-thinking skills to understand the fallacious reasoning, albeit they can still sense the inherent injustice of the question. But even knowing that the question is unanswerable as stated is not enough — it’s still adults asking questions, and adults are supposed to be right, and must be answered. (It’s enough to drive you nuts, maybe literally.)

These double-bind questions can also be delivered to employees by dysfunctional bosses (or to students by school staff). In addition to the common “Don’t you” and “Can’t you” phrasing, sometimes they take the form of equally-unreasonable “If-Then requests”.

“If you were really a good ‘team-player’ then you would do this for the company.”
“Don’t you want us to improve our customer satisfaction index?”
“Can’t you produce a better accuracy rate than that?”

In any regard, a double-bind question is easily identified by having two answers that will damn you either way. There is no way to answer the question directly. The entire premise is based upon pre-determined failure of the addressee.

So having identified our dreadful situation, we need to be able to resolve it, and do so from both directions. We need to know how to deal with such questions when others give them to us, and we need to know how to deal with children (or others) without unintentionally defaulting to these dreadful scenarios that we learned in our own tragedy-riddled pasts.


Given that the questions simply are unanswerable, the key is to respond to the actual problem, rather than trying to answer the question directly. Because you are being attacked, you want to make a positive statement about what you do like, about what you can do well, or about what you could do help improve the situation.

“I really like having things organised so I don’t get overwhelmed by too many assignments at once.”
“I want to find a better way of studying algebra that makes more sense, so I can master the techniques.”
“It’s great when we have enough time to really resolve customer issues so they don’t happen again.”

In our mental rehearsals, we imagine our opponents being so stunned that the situation is magically resolved. But in real life, they simply reload and shoot again. Worse, because you haven’t played the game the way they wanted, they press again with more of the same, hoping you’ll crumble under repeated pressure. So, you have to hold firm, answer again with a different positive statement, and do so politely to avoid becoming that which you despise. It’s important to not be too cheerful, because that comes off as just being flippant; you want to appear to be taking their concerns seriously, even as you are tip-toeing around the land mines.

The important part is to not try to beat them — it is not only an unwinnable game, but it is also an evil game. The goal is to avoid the game, and to cause them to no longer consider you a suitable target because you won’t give them what they want in the way of interpersonal game-playing.


Every parent or spouse or boss has situations where things have taken a terrible turn. It’s our first impulse to get angry, and to start assigning blame. But dwelling on what happened is not going to resolve the problem. Even trying to dissect the situation and find out “why” is of limited use. Usually people don’t have a good reason why they did something. Only pathologically disordered people set out to do terrible things from the start; the rest of us simply slide slowly down the path of problems, hoping things will get better and not knowing how or when to extricate ourselves.

Even asking Why did you do this? is not helpful, because it can still result in double-binds, or at best prompts excuse-making. Although it is good to identify where things went wrong (so we don’t do them again), we should not dwell on assigning blame. Going around blaming people, or making up excuses after being blamed, is great for creating drama but doesn’t solve anything. Worse, it can keep us stuck in the same vicious circles.

The important part to focus upon is resolving the problem.

  • What can be done in the near future?
  • What can be done long-term?
  • What can be done differently next time?

“So, what do you need to be able to improve your accuracy rate?”
“What would help you be able to organise your assignments better?”

Sometimes the best way to fight things is to step around them and keep moving forwards.


  1. Ettina said,

    21 May 2008 at 4:09

    “I have found that (aside from the names of the proofs) there are many people who do better in geometry OR algebra, but fewer who seem to do well in both. Algebra suits those who think in a linear, part-by-part fashion, whereas geometry suits those who think in a visual, wholistic fashion.”

    I do well in both, though better in geometry. I’m more the visual, holistic type. It’s just that I see the algebra stuff as lumps arranged and I try to rearrange them while making sure there’s still the same amount of lumps on each side.

    • andrea said,

      2 October 2011 at 1:51

      Ettina, that’s lovely!

  2. Rose said,

    12 May 2008 at 20:36

    Thanks Andrea! I was a standout in Geometry…so few girls were I kind of stood out. But it was easy…..I must be visual and wholistic! I am so proud that Ben does so well in Geometry, too. Familial pride, I guess.

  3. andrea said,

    10 May 2008 at 14:24

    I have found that (aside from the names of the proofs) there are many people who do better in geometry OR algebra, but fewer who seem to do well in both. Algebra suits those who think in a linear, part-by-part fashion, whereas geometry suits those who think in a visual, wholistic fashion. You can simply SEE that those two angles are the same, and why. Having struggled through the lower end of algebra, I found better teachers and studying methods that worked for me, and latter went on to do quite well in the college maths. Life is funny, isn’t it?

    For so many of our students, “The easy things are difficult, and the difficult things are easy”. We need to remember this, and not let them get stuck on trying to remediate their “easy” work skills (those “Remedial Learning Lessons”), and help them get past those so they can get to the more “difficult” work for which they are better suited.


  4. Rose said,

    10 May 2008 at 13:39

    It’s kind of funny…Ben is going through this right now. He has a 43 in math. He is worried sick he’ll have to take the 8th grade over again. I knew this day was coming…when he was in kindergarten, his lovely teacher said ” numbers just don’t stay in your head, do they?” He is finally to the point where he remembers his number facts.

    Ben has always qualified as gifted in math. It doesn’t make sense, except that he gets the higher order stuff naturally, that most kids will never have a clue about. I think it makes him interesting. He has a poster of Albert Einstein in his room that we got from the Smithsonian. It says:

    “Do not worry about your difficulties in mathmetics,
    I can assure you mine are still greater…”

    I have a brother who was given a calculator in 3rd grade, barely passed high school, and when told he ” wasn’t college material” went through with a 3.4, and passed the Bar on the first try. Life is not school.

    Thanks for letting me get this out. I’ve screwed up a LOT as a parent, but this is one I get a pass on.

    PS, I tried to tell him summer school might be the answer, or maybe we could take it on one of the “online” classes. Or maybe he’ll get lucky and pass.

    (He made 95-100’s in geometry, like his mom, and I didn’t like algebra either.)

  5. 10 May 2008 at 9:11

    I was made, by my mum, to read my school reports out loud. These report were usually very damning in that there was always a ‘must try harder’ or some similar sort of ‘exhortation’ in there; and such ‘exhortations’ were not based on any actual inquiry into how hard I was trying (or, as they assumed, wasn’t). Then I had to justify the discrepancy between my effort grades and my attainment grades (and there usually was one), but wasn’t allowed to explain that things were extremely hard for me – as a non-diagnosed autistic/dyslexic/dyspraxic school child – in a school setting where there was nothing in place to support my learning. The whole thing was designed – I think – to shame me into better performance. I don’t know whose idea it was but, as I am aware from my training in educational psychology, it is not a method with any merit as ethical educational practice.

    The consequence of this sort of thing, of course, is tragic: self-esteem and self-efficacy (in total, one’s self-concept) suffer enormously. The whole thing then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because nothing in the immediate surrounding system chances to actually give the child a chance, and the same shit happens again and again (as it did with me).

    This is probably one step up from the verbal double bind… a situational double bind, if one could say that.

    Well-written post about a well-identified issue.

  6. Beth Nixon said,

    10 May 2008 at 2:12

    Thank you for this.
    My son is struggling with issues we are still trying to sort through and reading this clarifies so much for me on how he thinks. I only hope I can help him and keep moving forward instead of undermining him.

    Keep up the great words.

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