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.