Raise your hand if you remember watching Charlie Brown specials on TV. Now, raise the other hand if you remember how the adults in those specials talked. “Wa…wa wa wa wa wa,” was all they ever said.
Sometimes, when I am dispensing some of my hard-earned wisdom to one of my children, I start to see their eyes glaze over and I realize that I probably sound like a Charlie Brown adult.
One of the tools in my parenting toolbox is, “Ask, don’t tell.” I’m good at using it in my work with other people’s teens, but I somehow manage to leave it at the door when I put on my Mom hat. In the short run, it’s expedient to tell my son to do this, that, or the other thing. But we don’t have very good conversations when I’m being expedient. So in the long run, he’s not getting the opportunity to plan and problem solve--skills he will need out there in the world.
Rather than telling him what to do and expecting him to follow my directions like a good little robot, what I really need to teach him is HOW TO THINK, and HOW TO PLAN. In order to do that, I need to ask him—not tell him.
As he has been learning to drive, I’ve tried to remind myself to ask, What is the speed limit here? What do you see up ahead? What did you learn from X experience? Obviously, there are important times for me to scream, “Stop! Car!” But if I’m doing my job of paying attention and teaching, I will anticipate what he needs to know and ask him questions so he can process the answers for himself and learn the thinking skills needed to be a good driver.
As I allow him more freedom to make his own decisions, I have gotten better at asking, When do you need to leave so you’re in the band room on time? How do you need to arrange your time so you are able to ___? Rather than figuring out his schedule and telling him what to do and when to do it, which is what I have done probably too much over the years.
If you have little ones, ask what they need to do to accomplish a task like getting ready for bed or putting their clothes away or picking up their room. Children with shorter attention spans may need you to ask for only the first step or two, and once they have completed those steps, ask, “What’s next?” School-age children who have trouble remembering what they have for homework benefit from parents taking them through their day, possibly with their notebook open, and asking things like: What did you do in reading today? Is there anything there that you need to finish for tomorrow? How about math…? And so on, to help the child take himself through his school day and remember necessary tasks. A great follow-up question to any of these is: And how can I support or help you?
Try this challenge: spend one day noticing every time you TELL your child what to do. The next day, every time you have the urge to TELL, find a way to ASK instead. Questions should be open-ended, so kids can’t just answer yes or no. Notice what differences you see over time in your conversation patterns and your child’s thinking process. He may still need your help with follow-through, but you’ll likely get more buy-in because he helped create the plan. Taking the time to ask—and listen—is more work on our part as parents, but growing skills is important to our kids’ big picture…and we will be less likely to hear ourselves in a Charlie Brown special!