July 11th, 2018

What does Socrates have in common with your children?

Well, Socrates, the Greek philosopher and educator who lived about 400BCE, was renowned for his love of questions. Perhaps Socrates’ main contribution to Western thought was the development of the Socratic method of enquiry, a process by which questions are asked to help a person examine ideas and find answers for themselves. It is used in teaching and in therapy and can be very usefully employed in parenting.

Socrates also said “To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.” That is something that will ring true for many of us and is a great starting position for a parent to take! Instead of delivering pearls of wisdom to our children we can ask questions to help them think and discover for themselves.

We can use questions to

  • shift the focuswhen something has gone wrong we can ask non-judgmental questions to help children reflect on what happened, how they felt, how others were affected, what they could do to make things better, how they could behave differently next time and what support they need.
  • guide enquiry –“So it seems that you’re worried that if you go to that party with Emily that Georgie will feel left out. It seems that you care about Georgie’s feelings. Is that right?”
  • examine beliefs“Do you think Tom deliberately threw the ball at you to hurt you or is his aim not that accurate?”
  • connect with our children –“If you were making a movie who would be the main character and what would he do?”
  • stimulate creativity“You haven’t given up on this problem. What solutions have you considered? Do you know anywhere you can look for the answers you need?”
  • challenge them – “I love the way you’ve left a finger space between each word. And your letters are a bit bigger than last time. That makes it easy to read. What will you do next time to make it even better?
  • provoke thought and test assumptions“What makes you say Hannah doesn’t like you? Is it because she didn’t reply to your message? Can you think of any other reason why she might not have replied?”
  • encourage kids –“I think you can do it if you practice. What do you think?” “How proud are you of yourself right now?” 

We can also use questions to:

  • set up for success. Before a challenging event (everyday things like homework or leaving a play date/park or rare events like a visit to a prospective school or getting vaccinations) ask kids what they need to do (you want detail) and what obstacles might get in the way, how they might feel about it and what they can do to deal with those challenges/feelings. “I know it makes you worried when you face new things for the first time. So when we go to the gym class you might think you don’t want to join in, even though you love gymnastics. I won’t force you to do anything that really bothers you but what can you do to help you feel safer?... Would you like to get there a bit early so we can watch some of the class before yours? Or do you have any other ideas? You’re a person who likes to check things out first. You’re very careful. That’s great so long as you don’t miss out on things you’d enjoy.” Our questions can help the children make the connections and get to the answers themselves. This is a really effective way to empower them and encourage them to think for themselves.
  • bolster self-esteem. When parents ask kids for their opinions, ideas and solutions it makes them feel their contributions are valued. 
  • avoid nagging. Instead of telling your kids what to do, ask them what they should be doing (nicely). It is far more likely to happen if it comes out of their mouths than when we tell them what to do (again). It reduces their sense of being controlled which can lead to resistance and rebellion. 
  • promote the development of morality. You can pose (hypothetical) questions to your children in the form what would you do if…? Your aim is to engage them in thinking, not to fish for information or to judge. Examples from my book, Real Parenting for Real Kids:
  • What would you do if Dad told you to clean up your toys but you were having fun? You don't want to stop playing.
  • You're practising on your skateboard in the house and break Mum’s new ornament. She hears the crash and comes running to see what happened. If you tell the truth, you know you will be in trouble. What will you do?
  • A boy is hanging out with friends when they start teasing a quiet kid, taking his things and calling him names. If he sticks up for him, the group could turn on him. He starts to slip away, but someone throws him the boy's bag. What should he do? 

Some questions to avoid:

  • Those that dwell on what has happened in the past –instead look forward
  • Judgment –questions are better when there is no ‘right’ answer. ‘Why’ questions can produce excuses and attempts to blame others or just reach a dead end.
    • Why did you hit Jamie?
    • Why did you fail the test?
    • Why didn’t you invite him over?
    • Why didn’t you leave your muddy shoes outside?
  • Questions that are really opinions or sarcasm or rhetorical questions e.g. do you think money grows on trees?
  • Closed questions. These are questions that require a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer and may stop the conversation. We all know these questions and their answers.

Parent

Child

How was your day?

Fine

What did you have for lunch?

I forget

Did you have football practice?

Yes

What did you learn today?

Nothing

!!!!

 

Open questions are ones that stimulate conversations and make kids think and explore possibilities. Examples are “If you had a day where you could do anything what would you do?” “I had a tough day at work. Tell me about your day at school.” Instead of “Why did you hit your brother?” say “I see your brother is crying. Tell me about it.” 

There are lots of commercially available conversation starter cards such as table topics. I recommend that, if you haven’t already, you go out and get some and enjoy some great conversations and ask lot of questions these holidays. Above all, be curious.

Posted in: Avoid Nagging , Self-Esteem , Setting up for success

 

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