Often parents believe, falsely, that their children are too young to use a questioning approach and feel that it won’t be effective until they are teenagers. In fact in response to a question one of my colleagues asked a 14-year-old boy at a social gathering, the Mother jumped in and said “I’m not sure why you’re asking him a question – he’s only 14 and doesn’t know anything!” Clearly, this particular lady didn’t believe that a questioning approach was valid with her son, even at the age of 14!
Whilst I firmly believe that parents know their child best and it is up to them to always make the best choices with their communication for their own children, I do want to suggest that in many situations very young children will really benefit from being asked a question rather than being told what to do. There are more examples in my book Better Parents Ask Better Questions, but I wanted to share an example of asking questions of a 3-year old that happened recently.
My family was visiting one Sunday for some lunch and I’d decided to make a yummy chocolate cake for afternoon tea. Everyone was indulging in eating the cake, including my 3-year-old nephew Sean. As he was eating he dropped a piece of cake on the floor (thankfully we were outside) and his Dad said: “Quick Sean, pick up the cake before the dogs eat it!” I have two dogs that have bottomless pits for stomachs and so they can often scavenge around the table in case there is food to be eaten.
Miraculously the dogs were nowhere to be seen, which was fortuitous given that they aren’t meant to eat chocolate. Sean, however, didn’t respond to the request and his inaction prompted his Dad to again request that he pick up the cake. Sean’s response was that he couldn’t pick it up – and sure enough, we noted that he had a fork in one hand and a piece of cake in the other which meant it was difficult for him to pick the cake up. Rather than instruct Sean to put his fork down and pick it up his Dad asked a Better Question, “What needs to happen for the cake to be picked up off the floor?”
At this point, we were all watching with interest to see what Sean did, and his response was to point to his Dad (as he had cake in his mouth) indicating that the answer was for his Dad to pick it up. We all smiled and respected that Sean had found an answer to the problem, and whilst it wasn’t the one we were hoping for, given that he had been resourceful, his Dad willingly went to pick the cake up.
What was demonstrated beautifully was that Sean was quite capable of making a decision about what needed to happen and when he was asked he was quite willing to take responsibility and make that decision. Of course, what parents need to be able to do is to respect that choice wherever possible and not correct so that things always have to be done the parents’ way. The other learning from this situation, which you may have picked up on, is that in this instance I think there was an even better Better Question that could have been asked and that was “What do you need to do to get the cake picked up off the floor?” I hope that you can see that the ‘you’ language of this question is more specific around Sean taking action himself, which perhaps would have given a better outcome. Nevertheless I think this is a wonderful example of how 3-year-olds are resourceful and how asking questions can enable them to build their confidence to make decisions and to take responsibility for their actions. Beautiful!