Asking our kids questions is a great way to engage them, to hear their motives, perspectives, experiences, fears, hopes and dreams...to get to know them better. It is also a great way to get them to open up, analyze, reason and problem solve. Instead of giving requests as commands, orders or demands, try asking your kids questions, it is the easiest way to get them to hear, remember, and comply with your requests.
These days I love asking my daughter questions! In our house it has helped her to start hearing, remembering, and feeling more positive about complying with the things I need her to do. It is also helping her to think of, care about, and remember to take care of her own needs, and take responsibility for her own daily schedule. I didn't realize how many commands, no matter how politely put, I was giving her each day. Even though I thought I had cut down on this a great deal and significantly changed my tone of voice and the way I phrased the request to show respect, it was still phrased as a command, "Please set the table now." Please feed the cats now." "Put your clothes away." "Don't forget to eat, you will get weak if you don't." And, on and on. Was I being abusive with my requests? Not at all, but I also was not motivating her to comply, develop her own analyzing, reasoning and problem solving skills or internal motivation. I noticed she rarely tried to figure things out or solve her own problems, and quite often did not remember what I had asked her to do. Time and time again we had the same conversations, "Why aren't you doing what I asked?" "How could you not remember that?" "We have talked about this a hundred times! - each time you even shook your head to say you heard and agreed!" I was confused by this, I could see she was confused as well, there was no good ending to any of those conversations. What I didn't know, was that I had been interfering with her ability to hear and process my requests. By always phrasing my requests as commands, answering her questions or replies with another command or explanation, or worse yet just getting frustrated and letting her out of the responsibility to do what I had asked, I was stopping her thought process, and any chance for her to learn to analyze, reason and problem solve on her own. I realized I was doing this because that was the way I was parented. I was either always told what to do, given the answer, given a way out, or had it done for me. I was not given the space or time to figure out things on my own, to grow my own internal motivation, analyzing, reasoning or problem solving "muscle." When I reached the age of 18 and left the house, although I had a job and an apartment, I was in no way prepared for life. Going out into the world on my own, without knowing how to analyze, reason, solve problems or motivate myself, caused all kinds of very difficult and dangerous problems for me.
Thankfully, there is another way to parent our children, a way that motivates them to hear, remember, analyze, problem solve and not only comply with our requests, but develop their own internal motivaton. One of the key parenting techniques to accomplishing all this, is asking questions, the right kind of questions. I will be writing a series of articles on the types of questions to ask, but today I will be focusing on two things; how to make requests in a way that motivates and promotes compliance, and what question we should never ask.
"The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge" ~ Thomas Berger ~
When someone makes a request of us by using a command, our mind automatically, or subconsciously, stops and puts up a resistance. Since the subconscious's main job is to protect us, it will first stop to look at all the possibilities of how complying with this command might harm us, keep us from doing what we really want to do, or what's best for us. Really, by bringing up a resistance our subconscious is doing it's job, shouldn't we analyze a request before blindly obeying it? Yes, this is the best way to keep safe. So resistance to requests in itself is not a bad thing, it has a purpose. But it can be a bad thing when our children are resistant to our requests. Why? Because as adults we know that we sometimes see things our children don't see, we are more experienced at analyzing and problems solving, and we can do it pretty quickly because of our years of experience. We also know what our family's schedule and priorities are, how in our minds we are constantly juggling our family's priorities, and coming up with the best way to proceed to get them accomplished in a timely manner. Our children don't have all of that information in their minds, nor have they had much time to develop their analyzing, problem solving, or priority juggling, and so at times their being motivated to do what we request of them without much hesitation, is paramount. But, if we take into consideration our child's subconscious mind, and how in an attempt to keep the child safe it's first response is resistance, we really can't blame them for not being motivated to comply when our requests come to them as commands. Happily, there is another way to get them to hear, understand, remember and comply with our requests in a timely manner, and that is by phrasing our request as a question.
When we are asked a question, our brain automatically, or subconsciously, goes off on a quest to find an answer. And, it will keep looking for an answer, subconsciously, until it finds one. Asking questions of kids instead of making requests or commands, is the quickest and best way to get them to hear, understand, remember and comply with our requests. There is one more thing to remember about the subconscious, however we phrase a question is how the subconscious will try to solve it. If we phrase the question as a negative statement, "Why don't you ever want to help set the table for dinner?" The child's subconscious will automatically look for reasons why, "Theydon't ever want to help set the table for dinner?" If instead we phrase the question as a positive, "Would you like to help set the table for dinner?" the child's subconscious will then go off to look for all the reasons why, "Theywould liketo help set the table for dinner," which will most often lead to a positive attitude and compliance with our request.
Here is an example of a request made through a command that brings up reisistance to compliance - that can be rephrased into a motivating question.
Parent: "Josh, please help set the table for dinner."
Parent: "Josh, would you like to help set the table for dinner?"
When the request is rephrased into a question using "Would you like to?" the child's subconscious will automatically go off on a quest to find reasons why "They would like to help set the table for dinner." Most often they will quickly find the answer, and will happily comply with the request you made through a question. Occasionally, due to habit and other factors, there will be times when the answer they come up with to our question is, "No, I would not like to." If this happens don't automatically give up and start giving them commands again or all kinds of explanations why no is the wrong answer or information about why they should like helping and setting up the table. Just ask them another positively phrased question.
Parent: "Oh...is there something that would make you want to set the table for dinner?"
Child: "I want to finish my puzzle right now!"
Next go into validating your child's feelings. Then ask another question.
Parent: "Oh, I can understand why you would be excited to finish you puzzle right now, you have been working on it for so long and you are almost done. Would you like ten more minutes to finish your puzzle before helping to set the table?"
In response to this question, the child's subconscious will go off on a quest to find reasons why they "Would liketen more minutes to finish their puzzle before helping to set up the table," and then will most often be motivated to respond "Yes." If not, just keep validating any emotions and asking positive questions, only offering gentle clarifying information as needed.
By asking questions and validating feelings associated with a resistance to comply, a situation that may have in the past ended in more commands or demands, raised voices, and a child's growing resentment to helping out around the house, can now end with you gaining compliance to your initial request, and you and your child both feeling good about getting your individual needs met.
Under most circumstances asking questions is a very good thing. But, there is one situation where we shouldn't ask our kids a question. We don't want to ask our kids "Why?" or "Why did you do that?" when they have done something they know is wrong. Why questions in general are good questions, but when we ask "Why?" to something our children know they have done wrong, the answer they find will always be a justification. This is just the way our brain or subconscious works when the question "Why?" is asked in this situation, it automatically sends itself off on a quest to find a justification for our actions. When this happens with our children, after stating their justification to us, they will feel justified for their actions and in their mind you should too, and that should be the end of the story - something bad happened to them and so they acted accordingly, makes sense to them. If you don't agree with their justification the remaining part of the conversation is usually a back and forth of emotions and dead ends, the child walks away or gets sent for a time out still upset, and you walk away feeling frustrated or angry. To change this scenario into something more productive, we can start by looking at why we are asking "Why?" Are we really wanting to hear why our child said they, "Purposely threw sand at their friends face?" No, most times what we are really wanting is for them to reflect on the situation, to see if there were any misunderstandings, and to see if maybe next time they are upset at their friend there might be a better option to throwing sand in their face.
To encourage reflection, accountability, and problem solving skills, we can ask a different kind of question, one that builds analyzing, reasoning and problem solving skills and moves things forward. It is best to talk or ask questions of a child when they are calm and open to hearing what you have to say. If your child has just recently been in a situation that upset them, you can wait until a later time, or you can try to calm the child through validating their feelings and showing empathy. To calm an upset child validation and empathy must come first - before asking questions. Validating feelings and showing empathy shows compassion and understanding, it does not show that you are agreeing with anything, but only shows compassion and acknowledgment of the child's experience. Always allow an upset child to keep talking about what they are thinking and feeling, even if you don't like what you are hearing, let them talk and keep validating feelings and showing empathy for what they are experiencing until they have calmed down. You can talk to your children about your family values and feelings about unkind words and actions later, but the validation process must happen for the child to first calm down, and second, be open to hearing what you say next. For children who are too upset to talk or hear what you are saying, have them first draw their feelings out. Give them a paper and pen and tell them, "Here, show me, draw how mad (name the actual feeling the child is experiencing) you are!" Anything goes! Although, I know how scary those anger pictures can be to us parents, it's better the intense emotion is out of the child where it can't harm them or someone else. If they don't like to draw, have them punch a pillow, throw a ball, just find some safe way for them to release all those pent up emotions. After that, encourage them to share their feelings with words, keep listening, validating and showing empathy until they are done talking. When they have calmed down enough to hear you, you can say something like, "I can see that you are/were very upset and I'm sorry your feelings got hurt, but throwing sand in the face is not acceptable."
To move the conversation forward and encourage problem solving skills, instead of asking, "Why?" You can use questions like these:
"What do you think you could do next time you are feeling frustrated at a friend?"
"What do you think would help you think before acting when you are upset?"
"What do you think would have prevented this from happening?"
"What did you feel when your friend chose to sit next to the girl instead of you?"
These types of questions automatically open up their minds to search for an understanding of their own feelings and actions, and to find solutions, not justification and blame. They allow their mind to be open to learning things like analyzing, reasoning and problem solving skills, self regulation and accountability, and emotional intelligence, all things they will need to make better decisions the next time they are feeling upset, and for the many years after throughout their lives.
Using the right kind of questions, helps our children to develop the skills they will need to solve problems and make good decisions when they are out on their own. This type of positive and proactive parenting also promotes an environment of autonomy, accountability, self regulation, cooperation and family peace, where constant parental reminders and micro-managed supervision is not required. You can learn more about proactive parenting here on our website or by requesting your own private Proactive Parenting Coaching session.
Hugs & Happy Parenting!
Julie L Gibson-Vasquez The Proactive Parenting Coach