Ditto. Right Back Atcha Kid.
Who knew answering a question with a question may just be the right answer?
I would be willing to guess that on a daily basis my 10-year-old son asks me an average of twenty questions. Although, if I were to actually keep count, I am certain that number would double, maybe even triple. This “habit”, if you will, started out innocent enough: “Mom, why are polar bears white and grizzly bears brown?” Yes, innocent enough. I am a talker, and a closet textbook bibliomaniac (I know, don’t you want to join my book club?). So when my child, then very young, would inquire about these sort of random conundrums, I was all too happy to edify my willing pupil, in explicit detail no less. I could go on and on about geographical habitat, physiological adaptations, migratory patterns, social behaviors, the light spectrum and how the colors we see are merely an interpretation of light that is being absorbed and reflected. Two hours later, my son was satisfied with his original query (that is, the polar bear/grizzly bear question, in case I lost you). Not that there was anything wrong with this approach; it worked for us and, most importantly, we enjoyed it. There was a black and white, right and wrong answer. My reply could easily be corroborated with information printed in any college text. Question. Answer. Dialogue. Check, check and check. Big win for mom.
I am unsure of the exact moment the shift occurred, but E’s questions started becoming increasingly complex. I could no longer reference my mental encyclopedia. My answers were scrutinized, even, dare I say it, challenged. One conversation stands out in particular; as it was the first time I had ever made this prodigious connection, forcing me to reconsider everything I thought I knew about the back and forth that was our conversations.
E: “What would you do if a bully was tormenting your friend? And she’s a girl?”
Me: “Easy. Tell an adult.”
E: “I did. It hasn’t stopped.”
Me: “Then ignore it.”
E: “But what will that do?”
The little research monkeys in my head were whipped into a panicked frenzy as they scoured every shelf in my hippocampus, shuffling through imaginary pages of every textbook I had ever digested in my entire life. Nothing.
Me: “Um. Well, you’re right. What would you do?”
E: “I think I should say something to his Dad.”
Me: “I don’t think that’s such a good idea; I’ve never met the guy before and I’m not big on you having an adult conversation with him.”
E: “We could just ask to go to the library instead. We like it there more anyway.”
Me: “Absolutely! Then you can get in good with Mrs. K and maybe she’ll hold books for you!”
In the end, my son and his friend wound up spending a small portion of their recess in the library, reading and helping restock shelves, when the bully’s class came to recess. It may not have been ideal for me, as I like him to run and burn off energy, and I would have preferred the adults at the school to handle the situation but they did not. And, most importantly, my son and his friend could return to having an enjoyable recess.
Where, at one point, I was able to answer my son in an informed, factual and straight forward manner, I have come to realize that so too can E. E can read the same books I can read and establish the same basic connections I can and answer all his own questions. It also makes complete sense then to deduce that E would continue to press me on all matters big and small, no matter how uncomfortable or unqualified I may be. I have always had the answers up until now, why would that change?
Rewind two years. I am in the school office waiting for the Principal regarding something completely unrelated. Three boys enter his office, the door is just barely open and I have a direct line of sight to observe this ordeal in its entirety. Mr. P has pulled the boys into his office regarding an altercation on the bus that morning. The boys are young, maybe second or third grade. Mr. P has no desire to hear these boys retell of the events that took place. He relayed the story he heard from the bus driver (who was, well, driving), holding a hand up to shush the boys when one attempted to speak, presumably to correct the details of the story. He then launched into lengthy rhetoric about how misbehaving is detrimental to your education, blah blah blah. I am unsure about the exact words; I tuned him out ten minutes later. Admittedly, I was more focused on the boys’ reactions. Their eyes glassed over and their once animated faces became slack and sleepy. They mindlessly nodded and shook their heads as Mr. P unfairly asked them one-answer questions, “Blah blah blah, isn’t that right?” “Blah blah blah, don’t you?” He also mimed the answer he wanted, shaking back and forth or nodding up and down as he asked. How unfair, I thought; those boys had a snowball’s chance in hell of making it out innocent.
I feel the need to reiterate that these boys were seven, maybe eight. What exactly did they learn? Or more importantly, what exactly were they taught? I would also like to point out that those boys were standing there for about twenty minutes, which is about nineteen and a half minutes longer than the average boy’s attention span. By the end of their shameless scolding, the boys left the office defeated and demoralized, heads hung low, shoulders slumped forward as they marched to class. “Repeat offenders?” I jokingly asked Mr. P as I entered his office. “Nah. First timers. You just never can tell though.” What? We’re still talking about the same three seven-year-olds that just walked out of here, right? Not serial rapists on the loose?
So as I reflect on these two scenarios in particular, I begin to dissect E’s questions of late.
Following E’s cues from our playground conversation I deduce this:
- E most likely has a pretty good idea how he is going to respond, if he has not already.
- More than likely what E seeks is validation, not a solution. He wants to be sure he is not going to get in trouble for anything he has already done/wants to do or perhaps wants to know he was right in responding the way he did.
- There is still something about this that is eating away at E, or else he never would have brought it to me; best to just get him talking without interruption.
Having observed the three boys & Mr. P I deduce this:
- If I just haul off and start vomiting scenarios and solutions at him, I could be totally wrong, or worse, offend him. More than likely, thirty seconds into my lecture E will simply shut down and agree for agreement’s sake.
- If I do not allow him to control this conversation not only will I not get the full story, he will not learn anything from it.
- If I commandeer the entire conversation I will effectively let him know that not only do I not trust his judgment, but I am not to be trusted as well. How ever is he supposed to talk to me about drugs and alcohol when he cannot even talk to me about the bully at recess?
Much to my surprise, when I steer our conversations with questions, I wind up learning so much more about my son than I thought I knew. I do not have to assume how he may respond, he tells me and then we talk about it. Sometimes what seems like a natural response in his head takes him down a bunny trail of possible consequences when we talk about it (“Yeah, but what happens if someone sees you doing that; how might that look?” “Oh. I never thought of that”). Conversely, he may learn that by approaching an issue in an unexpected way will lead to far more unforeseen rewards (“Sure, but if you do volunteer for the job, he’s more likely to give you the paying one this summer, right?”). When we engage in dialogue I no longer have to guess the connections he is making or hope that I am getting through, and he feels like he contributed to the solution equally. It is fair to assume that if he feels this is his idea, he is more likely to do it that way. After all, when is the last time because I said so worked for you?
That says nothing about the trust that continues to grow between the two of you. It is safe to assume if any of those three boys ever have an issue, they will not be taking it to Mr. P. After all, how can they possibly trust that they will not be accused, or fairly judged, for that matter? However, the opposite tends to happen during open, nonjudgmental conversation. Take these two scenarios:
Boy says in passing: “Katie’s dad smokes.”
Mom replies: “If I ever caught you with a cigarette you would be grounded for life, mister. No car. No curfew. GROUNDED! End of story.”
“Oh. That’s a bummer. Your great grandmother smoked, too. It’s a shame; those generations just didn’t know then what we know now. I mean, personally I never cared for the smell or the way people look when they smoke. But with everything that we know now, I just don’t get it. It’s almost a certainty that you will get one of many diseases, illnesses or ailments from it and you’re almost certain to get addicted to them as well. Furthermore, it’s expensive; Grandma’s habit costs around four hundred dollars a month! I certainly hope you never get the inkling to try it, but me personally, I just don’t get the point.”
More than likely, the first response is going to do little to stand in the way of scaring him straight or changing his mind, although it may. In my personal experience, children will still do what they want; they will just be sneakier about it. Lay down the law with irrational extremes and ultimatums, and you leave your child only two options: get caught or don’t get caught. Take the second response. Not only did mom not accuse him of anything, but she got her opinion out there as well as a few valuable facts and personal insight that could ultimately contribute to his decision to avoid cigarettes altogether. Above all, mom remained approachable. She avoided an accusing, threatening, and attacking rant while preserving, even strengthening his trust.
So the next time Junie comes to you for a solution to his dilemma, refrain from chasing him away with a short, one-word answer. Open up the airways for discussion. Any discussion will do, just get him talking. It will pay dividends toward your future parent-child relationship.