The Art of Asking Your Children the Right – or Wrong – Questions


Why do we ask our young children questions we know they can’t answer? Or ones we already know our own answer to? It just doesn’t make sense! Especially when the first response a child learns is some version of “No”. Being mindful not to ask little ones questions is one of the better takeaways on assertive parenting that I have found along the way.

“Do you want me to change your diaper?” mom habitually asks baby busily occupied with blocks.
“No,” baby replies.
“Well, it is time to change your diaper,” mom says, lifting baby off of the ground.
Why did you ask me, then? baby ponders.  Doesn’t what I say mean anything? Don’t you care about my opinion?

Of course, your child isn’t really thinking that, yet, but you get the point. Why not simply state, “I need to change your diaper now and then you can go back and play”?

In day-to-day parent-speak, it just comes naturally to coo to our babies and gently ask, “Are you hungry little one?” or “Are you ready for a nap?” when in reality it is time to eat or time for a nap. I mean, you are the parent and the baby doesn’t really know what’s what yet, so why ask? As kids do get older and do know what is what, these kinds of rhetorical questions, or questions asked without desiring a response, are just cause for frustration or disappointment. Kids simply do not understand rhetorical questions.

I can attest to that fact as a fifth-grade teacher. Every year, I am reminded of this as I watch my novice student teachers attempt to engage my students in a lesson the only way they know how — by asking a rhetorical question.  “Who has ever been to the beach?” Nearly every hand goes up. Eager minds erupt with memories that they must frantically share or their heads will explode. Pick me, pick me, their flailing arms and strained necks and faces practically scream.  “Wow, I can see a lot of you have been to the beach,” the new teacher continues. “Now put your hands down so we can continue with the lesson.”

What a bust! Hands go down, faces twist into frustrated scowls, and minds now wander down memory lane to the land of daydreams.  What a way to kill a lesson, distract your students, and make them less likely to engage next time! If fifth graders don’t understand the nature of a rhetorical question, how can your toddler?

So how do we change our passive, habitual, mindless parent-speak into assertive communication that strengthens communication with our child? Stop asking questions unless you truly care about the answer! If a subject is non-negotiable, don’t ask, tell!

It is five o’clock and time to get home for dinner, yet your little dear is happily enjoying the park. “Okay, sweetheart,” you say. “Do you want to go home now?”  What answer do you expect?  Of course, you know the answer is going to be a whopping “No” and you intend on going home either way.  So instead of asking, simply state the reality.

“It is dinner time. We are going to leave the park in 5 minutes. You have time for 2 more trips down the slide.” It is always helpful to break such news by giving a time warning so kids can mentally prepare for the next move. Try to reinforce good behavior with a show of gratitude, too. “Thank you for listening to mommy. I am so proud of you for listening.”

I have fallen prey to the habit of asking my son mindless questions many a time – it is a hard one to break – but I regret it every time!

“Do you want to go to lunch with mommy and grandma?” I ask as he contentedly plays choo-choos on the floor. OOPS! I quickly recant. “It’s time to go get in the car to meet grandma for lunch.”

“No, I don’t want to,” he responds.

Crap. The can of worms is open.

“Okay, Beau, we don’t have to go right now. You can keep playing for 5 more minutes,” I say, back-peddling. “Then we are going to get in the car.  You can play until then and you can bring one of those trains with you when we leave.  Do you understand?”

Some days, he protests no matter what.  Guess what?  We go anyway.  I am the adult.  Sometimes there is just no room for negotiation.  Such is life.  These are precisely the times when rhetorical questions have no place.  If there is no option, why pretend to offer one?  

It helps to soften reality with a bit of empathy and choice.  “I understand that you are upset about leaving your choo-choos, but you can bring one with you in the car. Which one do you want to take?”  

Now that Beau is older and can speak more fluently, I have begun asking him deliberate, closed-answer questions with options I know I can satisfy. “Would you like a bagel or yogurt for breakfast?”  “Should we go to the park in the stroller or on the bike?”  “Would you like to come to the store with mommy or stay home and play with daddy?”  In offering Beau these options, I empower him to act on his own behalf and show him that I trust his judgment to decide.

At the moment, Beau doesn’t know how to use the words both or neither.  When he does, we will begin working on his negotiation skills, but that is a whole other topic!

Giving options is important.  Anytime you guide children to make decisions for themselves, you help build their executive functioning, a set of skills critical to academic success.  Executive functioning skills help us get things done and include planning ahead, time management, focus, paying attention, comparing competing alternatives, recognizing the outcomes and consequences of different options, and making sound decisions.  The sooner we can engage our kids in decision making, the better!

To truly engage our kid’s intellect, we need to be mindful.  Asking arbitrary, rhetorical questions does a child no good and may even do some harm. Consider how you feel at work when a co-worker dominates a conversation and you can’t get a word in edgewise.  Even if you do, they brush you off because they already know the answers they were looking for.  Makes you want to tune them out, right?  Or not engage with them again.  We sure don’t want to do that to our kids!

The very nature of a question is to desire a response. Do your kids a favor. Get rid of rhetorical questions.  They don’t serve either of you well in the long run.

Honesty is the best policy, in parenting as well as in life

I have never lied to my son, not intentionally at least, not yet.  Sounds like a lie, right?  Well, I have made it my mission to avoid even the whitest of lies, the silliest of embellishments, and the most innocent of nudges.  Why do I do this to myself?  I mean, everyone lies a little, right?   The simple, honest truth is that I want my son to trust me, down to the last word.  

No one will argue with me that honesty is usually the best policy, but not even my husband sees eye to eye with me on an all honesty, all of the time policy.  

What’s the harm in using parenting cliches?  We have heard them our whole lives.  “If you don’t eat your dinner you won’t grow up to be a big boy.  Don’t you want to be a big boy?” Grandmas coo.  “You are not getting out of the high chair until you finish your dinner,” Mommies warn.  “If you don’t eat your vegetables, you can’t play with any of your toys tonight,” Daddies threaten.  These are extreme examples, but you get the picture.

These types of seemingly harmless comments just slip out of people’s mouths without thought.  Maybe they were what we were raised with and so we believe this is how kids should be persuaded, through fairy tales, threats, and hyperbole.  I know the point is to coax kids into doing what we ask, but the truth is, we don’t really care if they finish their dinner tonight or not (just one more bite would do) and no one is really going to leave their kid in the high chair over night!  So why say things that aren’t true?  You just make yourself out to be a liar!

In our house, my husband likes to tell Beau things like “There isn’t any more banana, Beau,” if he has already had enough for today (and we are talking about the sickeningly sweet Trader Joe’s dried bananas that are essentially his baby crack!).  I know that seems like a harmless approach to keep Beau from getting sick on this treat, but it drives me crazy to hear!  Why not just tell him the truth? “You have already had enough banana for the day.  Let me get you something else.”   

To be clear, my husband is the most honest, honorable person I have ever met.  He keeps me honest in the rest of my life.  But when it comes to certain little comments, he defends them as simply being easier than fighting with him over tiny things like more bananas.  He just wants to protect Beau.  What’s the harm in telling him a meaningless fib to avoid a conflict?    

I understand his point, but it isn’t enough for me.  Everything we say to our children matters – every single time.  This may sound like a huge burden on parents, and it is, but it is critical.  Our words paired with our actions set the foundation for how well our child trusts or doesn’t trust us, and these bonds of trust are what will carry our relationship through the most stormy of waters later in life.  

From day one, children are constantly watching, listening, and learning. Kids are literal little sponges who absolutely do not understand hyperbole or sarcasm.  They need the truth even if it means an argument might ensue.  A) They need to learn how to accept the word “no” and deal with not always getting their way.  B) They need to know that you will follow through with your statements.  C) You want them to believe you when you speak.  D) Trust goes both ways!  If I offer him the bad news that he may not have another banana,  he learns that I believe he can handle the truth!  Me trusting him is just as important to the strength of this relationship as him trusting me.       

There are times when my husband complains to me, “He only listens to you.”  I argue that that in itself is hyperbole, but I digress.  Perhaps when it comes to listening to Mommy, he has learned that I am not hiding the truth.  I have trained him to trust me by showing him that he can trust me in even the littlest, most harmless situations.  If I tell him there are no bananas and then he goes into my purse and finds the bag, which he has started doing, he will start doubting other things I say and testing me in other areas.  I would rather have a lot of little battles early on then a big one about trust issues later.    

So what about big things like Santa Claus, you ask?  Am I depriving my son of our most beloved Western traditions because I refuse to tell a lie?  No, so far I have just emphasized tales like these as being just that, tales.  “Look, there is a man dressed up like Santa Claus over there” or “In the story, Santa Claus brings toys to good little girls and boys.  Are you a good little boy?  Would Santa bring you toys?”  I don’t need him to actually believe — and fear — Santa in order to get him to enjoy the holiday season and to be a good little boy.  Now, how to handle the tooth fairy?  We aren’t there yet and I am still working on how I will that handle that one.  I am open to suggestions!

And what about the truth about our own less-than-perfect moments?  My husband is adamant that he will not share his personal transgressions with Beau and I respect his wishes to maintain a blemish-free image in his son’s eyes.  He says he will admit that he is not perfect, but that he will lie in an effort to protect his son from making the same mistakes he did.  

I, on the other hand, while not advertising my teenage troubles, will certainly open up to him in appropriate detail if he ever asks me about or needs guidance and support with particular issues.  My hope is that because I have told him the truth his whole life, he will trust coming to me when he ever needs sage advice.

I need my son to trust me.  I know how difficult the teenage years are.  Building a relationship with my son that will withstand his adolescence is of the utmost importance to me.  I know that relationship started the day he was born and that we are forging it every day, with every word and action.   

The other day, Beau asked Daddy for a yogurt at an inopportune moment. Daddy said, “There isn’t any yogurt in the fridge.”   I couldn’t help myself.  “Really?” I asked.  “Is that the truth?” knowing full well what the truth was.  “No,” he replied.  “Then why say it?  It isn’t true.  Just tell him he can have it in a little bit or even that he has to wait until tomorrow,” I needled.  “I don’t know.  I guess it’s just a habit.  I will work on it,” he said.  “Thank you,” I replied.  

Habits are hard to break, but some are absolutely worth breaking.  Honesty is the best policy.  Someday, when I have to have a sit down with Beau to discuss his own telling (or not) of the truth, I will share that old adage with him — and he will believe me.  

Say “Pay Attention,” not “Don’t…” – The Art of Positive Wording to Build Competent Kids

I had many thoughts about how I would parent before I became a parent. I read a litany of books before my son, Beau, was born.  Many I ignored or forgot once he came, so overwhelmed was I with the reality of late nights and how to cure seemingly inconsolable tears.  But a few books stuck.  One very easy and insightful read was The Complete Secrets of Happy Children by Steve and Shaaron Biddulph.  This book offers many simple, common sense reminders of things I think I always knew, but that I needed brought to the front of my awareness.  One huge takeaway was concentrating on how I phrase things to Beau, namely using positive wording to build up his competence and self-assurance, especially when giving commands or instructions.

“If a child is told ‘Don’t fall out of the tree’, then they have to think two things: ‘Don’t’ and ‘fall out of that tree.’  Because we use these words, they automatically create this picture.  What we think, we automatically rehearse” (25).

This idea made perfect sense to me.  Giving negative cautions and warnings instills doubt.  These doubts then become self-fulfilling prophecies followed inevitably by “I told you so.”   What a blow to the ego!  If there was any apprehension to try something new before, who would try again after that embarrassment!

Instead of “Don’t slip” or “Don’t hurt yourself,” tell your child how to do things the proper way.  In the case of my son, Beau, who has a jungle gym in the backyard, we tell him to “Stay focused on where you put your hands” or “Hold on tightly.”  Even “Be careful” seems to be too cautionary for my taste, hinting at danger and inciting doubt.  If he isn’t allowed to do something because it is dangerous, then I don’t let him do it, but if it is him just being a kid, I want to give him the confidence and courage to keep going.

My go-to phrase has become “Pay Attention.”  I use it constantly.  Pay attention climbing the ladder.  Pay attention going down the stairs.  Pay attention jumping off that rock.

I am not warning Beau of danger.  Being naturally risk-averse, he is acutely aware of when he is taking a chance.  Rather, I am asking him to use his senses, to trust his instincts, and to focus on the task at hand.  I am not telling him what NOT to do, but what TO DO.  This simple positive spin on my words shows him that I trust his judgment and that I believe in his ability to succeed, focusing his mind on doing something new rather than on running away in fear of what could be.

The other day, I actually heard Beau tell himself, “Pay attention” when he was climbing our jungle gym ladder!  I could see his awareness heighten as he concentrated on each little move with complete confidence and total control.  I felt like I could sit back, relax, and just enjoy watching him go!  He had the tools and the attention to be safe on his own without my nagging or hand-holding.  It was awesome!!!

Of course, there are times when a sharp “Look Out!” is immediately necessary.  But in our day-to-day language, we have to build our own good habits.  It took awhile to ditch the “Be careful” and “Watch out” so dutifully ingrained from my own upbringing, but now it is second nature.  I now feel like I have helped to establish a habit of mindfulness in my little one that builds him up and gives him courage and competence.  Our words become our kid’s thoughts.  What we say matters!