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.

The Truth Always Comes Out

My blog post about honesty last week brought me lots of attention. I knew it would.  I stick by my claim that at the time of writing, I had not yet intentionally lied to my son. However, no one is perfect. I had a moment of weakness last night that brought that record crashing down. I lied to my son and he caught me.

We were at the Concert in the Park. Daddy was at work and Beau and I had arrived early to secure space for the other two families who would join us. Beau brought his Mickey Mouse bubble wand to help pass the time but as the park filled up, the bubbles became a bit obnoxious for our neighbors. In a moment of distraction, I managed to wrest the wand out of his hand and sneak it into the wagon. He seemed not to notice or care, so I took the bubble solution off of the wand and capped it tight. Done.

Rows and rows of chairs now filled the park. The band took the stage, and my anxiety over holding this big area for the families who were now late due to traffic began to rise. I despise saving seats. I can’t stand the feeling that others can’t sit because I need so much room. I sensed rows and rows of coveting eyes staring at the back of my head as the music started. Of course, just then, Beau noticed the bubble wand in the wagon, grabbed it, and asked, “Where bubbles, mama? Where bubbles?” “The bubbles are gone, Beau,” I lied.

I couldn’t believe myself! Take it back, I thought. Tell him the truth! All week I had been engaged in conversations with my family and close friends about honesty, talking about how hard it is to keep every little word honest, whether certain comments pass the honesty test, and debating the importance -or not- of always telling the truth. My husband, especially, hung on my every word just to catch me slip up. He would have loved to have caught me saying this!

But I didn’t take it back. I was stressed about saving these seats, about being watched and judged by the others in the crowd, and I did not want them to watch me argue with my son. So I let it ride. Convinced that the bubbles were in fact gone, Beau returned the wand to the wagon and I averted a possible meltdown. No problem, right?

Later in the evening while our group enjoyed the music, one of the kids went into the wagon, found the bubble wand — and the bubbles!!! He brought them over to Beau and me asking me to put it together for him and I knew I was caught. There were more bubbles, Beau’s face seemed to say. I quickly stood up, politely yanked the wand and bubbles from his hands, and quickly buried them again in the bottom of the wagon.

Beau followed me and reached into the wagon to hunt them out. I hugged him tightly and said, “I am sorry I told you there were no more bubbles. I should have told you that we shouldn’t use the bubbles here anymore. There are too many people here for bubbles now.” I felt terrible for having lied to him and even more terrible because I had been caught. Inevitably, the truth always comes out.

So do I believe that I spoiled my trust-relationship with my son thanks to this one moment of weakness? Certainly not. While disappointed, I can’t beat myself up. I recognize that we all make mistakes. We all lie despite our best efforts at honesty. But I do believe that stacked up over time, these little lies teach our children a lot about who we are, who they can trust, and about the kind of person they aspire to be. I still contend that it is absolutely in all of our best interests to do our best to be honest with our kids, even if we can’t manage it all of the time.

The very real truth is that we begin our parenting journey with the best of intentions. We hold ourselves to the highest of expectations and the highest of standards. Then we realize that reality is a b-tch. Our standards slide and our kids quickly learn that we are not perfect. In time, they learn that they are not perfect, either. That is part of being human. By facing our mistakes honestly and showing our kids how we learn from them, we teach them how to positively handle their own imperfections. We need to forgive ourselves for being human and just aim to do our best every day.

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.  

Are the “terrible twos” a Declaration of Independence? What parents can do for their toddlers this Fourth of July

This Fourth of July morning while getting Beau dressed in his festive red, white, and blue, I started to explain to him what the holiday was all about – in a two-year-old kind of way.  “We are celebrating the birthday of our country,” I said.  “Just like when we celebrated your birthday the other day.  Today, the United States is 241 years old.”  

I pondered the meaning of the day a little more deeply as I finished dressing him.  Independence Day: the day the colonists declared independence from Britain for being over controlling and not allowing the colonists any say in their own governance.  It would only be a matter of minutes before I would have to learn something this Independence Day about parenting my two-year-old.           

Beau and I moseyed into the bathroom to brush his teeth.  Toothbrushing is usually something Beau enjoys, so I was totally caught off guard when he started refusing.  I pushed, trying to hold him still while I attempted to safely enter the toothbrush into his mouth.  But Beau pushed back, with tears, shouts, and lashing arms.

In the wake of my son’s second birthday, I am reading a lot about the “Terrible Twos” and how to survive them.  One resource says the “terrible twos” are cause by an internal conflict between wanting to break away from overwhelming parental control and yet still wanting to remain close.  This is a transitionary period when the child is feeling out his independence, trying to be and act older, and attempting to establish his identity in the world.  He needs the freedom to explore and try – and fail – without the heavy hand of a parent controlling his every move.  

The terrible two-year-old’s tantrums are in a sense a Declaration of Independence!  In writing the Declaration of Independence, the colonists listed the many grievances they suffered under King George’s heavy hand.  They claimed that a government gains its power from the “consent of the governed,” and since he did not take into account their needs, they had the right to abolish his rule over them.  They had addressed their frustrations with him over and over and finally, enough was enough.  The colonists were outta here!

Without the eloquence of language to express their demands, toddlers act out the only way they know how, emotionally and physically.  Beau was expressing a grievance, and to avoid a Revolution, I needed to start listening.  

Better to start listening now.  I know full well how kids go through a second transitional period in their teenage years which can end in full out rebellion.  This is a time in Beau’s future that I seriously dread, especially after how I behaved when lashing out against what I saw to be overbearing control by my parents.  Kids need to learn how to be adults, how to take chances – and how to fail – and to become who they are going to become, just as they did when they were two.  However, unlike at two, a teenager may really say, “I am outta here” if you don’t listen and those consequences are devastatingly frightening.  Working out a way to share control with Beau is something I would like to perfect early.  

If King George had heeded the warnings of our Founding Fathers, we may still be a part of England today.  Instead, we declared independence fought a terribly long war to finally break free.  I never want to fight that war with my child.  I will listen to his grievances and support him in any way I can as he transitions into independence.    

So how did I handle the toothbrushing tantrum?  Through goofy silliness, I managed to get Beau to stop protesting long enough to hand him the toothbrush.  Usually I brush them for him so this time, I asked him to do it.  He brushed the bottom row pretty well and then gave the brush back to me.  I urged him to brush the top and I could see the tantrum resurfacing.  Abort!  Abort! I thought.  “OK, Beau.  Nice job on the bottom row.  We’ll get the top later.”  In giving him some control, we had a half-brushed mouth until bedtime, but the Revolution was averted.  This particular battle was not worth spoiling all of the day’s fireworks!   When brushing before bed, Beau said, “Mommy do it?”  I smiled and hugged him.  See, he still needs me (sigh).  

Happy Independence Day!