Why parents don’t need to have all the answers
Have you ever had that experience when your children ask your a question and you respond with a perfectly good answer only to hear them ask, “Oh. Why?”
You attempt to answer the question, and they look reassured, until they raise their eyebrows and ask, “Why?” Or perhaps you walk into the room where two siblings are fighting and you are expected to know how to sort things out – which means you need to have all the answers and all the solutions.
As I have researched parenting and practised it with my six children, I have come to a startling conclusion. Parents who think that they have to have all the answers are wrong. In fact, not only is it wrong to have all the answers but to give our children all the answers does them a great disservice.
If you want to be a great parent, it’s not about having the right answers at all. Instead, it’s about having the right questions. I’ve discovered that once our children are calm, they are able to find perfectly good answers to many of their questions and difficulties inside themselves!
So how does it work? Let’s take a look at three different situations and three ways we might work through things with our kids. Then I’ll share a handful of helpful tips for asking great questions.
Scenario 1: Take the situation where your child wants to know how something works, or why the moon follows the car.
First, I recommend asking our children what they already know – or think. That can often lead to a fascinating conversation.
Second, rather than filling in all the gaps and answering their question, ask them how they can find out more. Then guide them through that process, whether it is exploring YouTube and Google, or going for a walk outside to investigate.
Scenario 2: Let’s look at the issue of siblings fighting.
First, separate them. Second, let them know no one is in trouble but we need to sort things out. Third, gently help them calm down. No one is finding any good answers while they’re angry.
Then ask simple questions about what was going on. These questions might involve asking, “Why were you hitting your brother?” but ideally we will quickly work out the facts (usually it is because the brother did something, but only because his sister said something … and it becomes obvious they’re both responsible). But we want to move as quickly as possible to questions related to differing perspectives.
- “How does hitting your brother help?”
- “How does it make the rest of the family feel?”
- “How does it make your brother feel about you, and how does it leave you feeling about your brother?”
These questions promote insight, empathy and perspective.
Finally, we ask the most important question of all: “What do you think is the best thing to do from here?” If we ask this question too early, we get a silly response or an angry response. But when well-timed, our children find much better answers than we could give them – and they are willing to act because it’s their idea, not ours. (If they give us a silly answer, rather than getting angry, pause and say something like, “That’s certainly one way of moving forward. We both know it’s probably not the best. What else might be more helpful?”)
Scenario 3: This time let’s imagine you are having conflict with your child about technology use/over-use.
The common mistake we make is to start telling our children all the reasons ‘why’ we make a request. This often turns into an argument or power struggle.
Instead I suggest we forget about having all the answers (that our children don’t want to hear anyway) and instead ask the right questions:
- “Why do we keep having this conflict over technology?”
- “What are my concerns with your tech use?”
- “What are the best ways for you to get what you want, and for me to get what I want?”
- “What should we do from here?”
It is important to remember:
- Ask open-ended questions (questions that require more than a yes or no response)
- Focus on perspectives and outcomes instead of rules
- Ask for both sides of the story
- Ask lots of follow-up questions
- Try not to make the questions into an interrogation. It is a conversation.
- Be comfortable with long pauses
- Help children realise the answers are inside them by not giving them too many answers
It is important to remember that these conversations will not work when emotions are high. So make sure that everyone is calm before you get started on questions. And be comfortable knowing that if your children don’t have all the answers, you don’t have to provide them right now. Instead you can say, “OK, let’s chat about it again tomorrow when you’ve had some time to think about it”. (Or in an hour, or a week.)
When we start asking questions, we no longer have to have all the answers. We get to stop being the dictator. Instead, we become a collaborator with our children in developing strategies to make our relationships work better, and our families happier.
Find more My Spot Life articles:
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- The ultimate working from home guide
- How to deal with cringe-worthy kid moments
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- 52 weeks of health and happiness
- 10 simple ways for mums to save time
- Debt-proof your relationship
- Stay-cation: how to holiday at home
This article was written by Dr Justin Coulson for Kidspot.com.au and has been adapted for Kidspot.co.nz