We all want our kids to be more cooperative, to listen to us, to follow directions, and yet, time and time again, when I work with parents and ask about what their biggest challenges are, they always include, “My kids just won’t listen!”
We know they hear us. We have their best interest in mind, right? So what is the problem with kids that we have to repeat ourselves so many times, and even then, they don’t always do what we want them to do?
Believe me, this shows up in my house, a lot. My husband and I will commiserate at the end of the day, sharing stories of feeling ignored, challenged, and straight fed up with the selective listening that happens throughout the day.
When I am at my best, using my skills, and showing up as the mom I want to be, I remember the power of curiosity when interacting with my kids. Curiosity allows space for my kids to puzzle out what needs to be done and how to get there. Curiosity is not an invitation to power struggles. Instead it invites relationship, skill building, and powerful self-reflection.
Take a moment and think about how the day begins for your child. In the little bit of time before you get out the door, they may hear many of the following statements:
Make your bed.
Eat your breakfast.
Clear your spot (at our house this means “put away your placemat and do your dishes”).
Brush your teeth.
Wash your face.
Grab your lunch and homework.
Put on your shoes.
Get your backpack.
Even when our tone is kind and we add a “please” to these statements – that is still a lot of commands, and the day hasn’t even begun! Maybe you don’t say all of this to your child, maybe only a few, but I am sure many of us can relate to this list.
And what happens when this is the way our morning is? Do you notice that your kids get slower when you tell them to hurry up? Do you notice that they find all sorts of other things to do besides brush their teeth? Do your kids ever exclaim that they “forgot” their shoes/coat/lunch once you’ve made it into the car?
My friends, I feel your pain.
Did you know that the word “educate” comes from the Latin word, “educare” and it means “to draw forth”? We (myself included) spend a lot of time stuffing information into our kids, when really we should be drawing information out of them.
Here is what I have learned, and have found to be helpful with my kids; instead of telling them what they need to be doing, I ask. It is a small tweak in language, and it makes a big difference. It sounds like this:
What are you going to wear today?
What agreement did we make about your bed?
How much breakfast do you think you need to feel energized until lunch?
What do we do with our spot when we are done eating?
What do you need to do so your mouth feels fresh?
How can you make your face less crusty (this question was contributed by my 11-year-old)?
What do you need to have in your backpack?
What do you need on your feet?
What do you need if it’s cold outside (I often follow this with, “do you want to wear your sweatshirt or put it in your backpack?)?
What are you missing?
How can we move quickly to the car?
Sometimes these questions are met with blank stares, especially if the kids aren’t generally asked a lot of questions. They may look at you like your crazy. It is ok to let them know that you are working on becoming less commanding, that you are trying something new. You can tell them that you have faith in their ability to take care of themselves, and you are going to show them by being less “bossy” (my kids love to tell me how bossy I am…).
Sometimes these questions may need to be followed up with a limited choice – “Do you want to wear your jeans or your shorts today?” Or another question – “Do you want to look in the Family Meeting book to help you remember what you agreed to do?”
The really important thing here is to be really curious. It’s not a trick or anything, not to manipulate our kids, but to open up the space so that they can be thoughtful and reflective. Their answer may not be the one you expect, but the likelihood for cooperation increases when we don’t invite them into a power struggle.
In Positive Discipline, we call these Curiosity Questions. They are what and how questions and allow us to maintain connection and relationship as we help our kids explore what is needed to be done/accomplished. Don’t wait for tense moments to begin to use Curiosity Questions with your kids, instead, try and use them as often as possible. When this becomes regular language in your home, your kids will be more forgiving when you need to give a command now and then.
Our job is to prepare our kids for life. It is our job teach them social and emotion skills, as well as how to take care of themselves. To do this, we must hold a space for them to explore their needs, we must model relationship skills that includes communication and mutual respect. It can be tricky, and at times messy, but using Curiosity Questions can help us move in this direction.
Give it a try.