When my firstborn was a few years old, one afternoon I walked into my bedroom shortly after I had just cleaned it to find him in the process of tearing it down.
My initial impulse was to react and solve the problem, probably by stopping him, or maybe even making him pay for this mishap and disrespect, because we are told that as parents we have to immediately correct our children’s “ills,” lest they become horrible human beings.
However, something compelled me to ask him what he was doing, mainly out of pure curiosity. He looked at me, a bit perplexed at the fact that I couldn’t tell, then proceeded to explain that he was building some sort of playground with a slide and so on. He had an entire story built around his project.
It really wasn’t a stretch to reorganize my thought process in order to take in the scene from his perspective. But more importantly, it led me to an awakening which would influence my parenting style.
So picture this toddler, climbing into a crib, which had long been a used as a storage bin, pulling off the railings and mattress, carrying it over to the bed (which was quite large compared to him) and then proceeding to bring to life what he had imagined. What are the skills being used? He had spent time creating what to a small child was a complex design, requiring critical thinking, problem solving skills, and strength. Aren’t these the very skills we all say we want children to develop?
Had I intervened without asking, by punishing or reacting badly, I would have crushed a little boy’s creativity and hard work, while sending the message that our home is not a place to be creative.
It was one of those moments of revelation. From his perspective, he was creating. From my perspective, it looked like he was being destructive or misbehaving. I would not have known his intention, had I not asked. This incident made me realize that my children’s behavior often has nothing to do with me. I don’t believe children wake up in the morning and think, “Hmm, let me think of all the ways I can make life difficult for my parents today.” Often parents make statements like “Why is he doing this to me?” or “This child is going to be the end of me.” What we perceive as misbehavior, we sometimes translate into our children doing things to us, when perhaps they could just be trying to figure out their world. I started to pay attention and came to notice that much of my children’s actions had very little to do with me, and more to do with their own development and process.
So I learned to be a more conscientious parent; to seek to understand my children, to delay my reaction to what may seem like misbehavior, to start with inquiry and empathy. Like all of us, children are curious beings trying to figure it all out. Our task is to accompany and guide them along their journey.
By allowing him the opportunity to explain himself, I was able to see the joy in his eyes while he explained his creation (which was priceless). So we came to an agreement that he would complete his creative process and then help put the room back together and when all the fun, creativity, and mess was done, he did exactly as we had agreed.
What could have been a really stressful afternoon, with my son heartbroken, had I insisted on having my way or “teaching him a lesson,” turned out to be a pleasant afternoon of creativity and fun, in which I was able to accompany him in his magical world of creation. In the end I learned something and it became a wonderful bonding experience. But it took detachment and flexibility on my part to allow him time to create, and for me to be okay with the mess. After all, what does it matter if my room isn’t perfectly clean?
I’ve learned that parenting isn’t about exerting force and control over an individual. It is not about winning the battle over our children, but rather about lovingly guiding them to become the best version of themselves, and in doing so, we become better versions of ourselves. By giving my children a chance to explain themselves, I am always pleasantly surprised at what they have to say.
This incident happened more than a decade ago, and asking questions became one of the tools I use, especially now that my children are teenagers. Recently, I became certified as a Positive Discipline Parent Educator and one of the recommended parenting tools is called “Curiosity Questions.” So here is the tool broken down.
Connect before correcting. I have learned over the years that connecting before correcting is a very effective tool. Ask questions with curiosity to find out what is going on. This works especially well for teenagers too. Try to emotionally detach from the behavior and seek answers first.
Be genuinely curious, without judgement, and hold off the need to immediately fix things or punish.
Children will listen after they feel listened to. Try to get to the bottom of the behavior so that you can help them problem solve and move towards a solution.
Don’t trick them into giving you answers so that you can launch into lecturing or heave some punishment upon them.
Curiosity questions might sound like: What happened? How do you feel about it? How do you think others feel? What ideas do you have to solve this problem? Can you help me understand what you are thinking? What do you hate about it? What gives you the impression she/he doesn’t like you? How is that for you?
If a child says “I don’t know what to do.” ask “What is most confusing?”
According to Linda Popov author of the Virtues Guide, by asking “Cup emptying questions” we let them empty their cup and then only can we accompany them towards a solution.
Ask What and How question and stay away from Why questions, as they tend to sound accusatory. You want your child to communicate with you, not put up a wall.
Finally, be conscious of your tone of voice and body language. None of this will work if your tone or body language betrays you. Children have a very high radar for insincerity. Remember, be genuinely curious.
All too often, we react to behavior with punishment, consequence, lecture, and shaming before getting to the root of the problem. Science however teaches us that in order to prescribe the right medicine, we have to first diagnose, which begins with asking questions and gathering data.
So how does one become a more conscientious parent? One way I have found is to stop, take a deep breath, and ask questions. Then together, figure out the appropriate solution for the given problem.
Thank you for reading.