The Best Questions To Ask Your Kids

Learning to Respond, Not React

I’m reading a new book that is challenging me in many ways. Not just as a parent but in all of my relationships. The idea I’m currently sitting with is “responding, not reacting.”

Reacting is second nature. Something happens, we react. Particularly I find, when it comes to our kids. As an adult, I really struggle with this, yet I expect my 3.5 year old son to demonstrate the skill of self regulation and self control consistently. If I can’t consistently model for him how to stay calm and respond instead of react, how am I being at all realistic in my desire for him to do that?

As a parent, it is hard to watch our kids struggle. Really hard. We want to swoop in and save them, whether it is from the disappointment of a Play-Doh creation being destroyed or a bad grade on a test, it’s really challenging to let our kids experience hardship.

However, we are unintentionally sending our kids the wrong message when we step in so quickly. In the book, “Are My Kids On Track?” there is a quote from Albert Einstein that says, “It’s not that I’m smart. It’s that I stay with problems longer.” The reason he was able to stay with problems is because no one was swooping in to solve his problems for him. Sometimes, we forget to give kids the opportunity to struggle with their problems and inadvertently send the message we don’t think they can handle it on their own.

One way I have been working on responding, instead of reacting, is by asking questions. The book, “Are My Kids On Track?” gives a list of questions that I have found incredibly helpful. For example, yesterday Keener was building with Magnatiles and Grace knocked it down. Instead of swooping right in, I watched and waited, first responding with empathy and validation. That’s frustrating that your tower was knocked down. Then, I asked him What do you think would help? While he verbally responded “nothing” he started rebuilding right away. I noticed you made a choice to start building it again. You solved that problem on your own by fixing your tower.

Questions To Ask

The book mentions the following questions as a way to help motivate kids to stay with their problems and limit ourselves from being their solution:

  • What do you want to see happen?
  • What do you think would help?
  • What would you like to do about that?
  • What does your heart tell you?
  • What’s your game plan?
  • What are you thinking?
  • How do you want to solve that?

Teaching Kids To Share

Considering Development and Encouraging Theory of Mind

I often find myself asking Keener to share. You have to share is also one of the most common phrases I overhear at the playground. But what am I really asking Keener to do in this situation? What does it mean to share?

As adults, we decide for ourselves when and what we want to share with others, whether it’s  our food, car, or home. But rarely, if ever, do we ask another adult to give up something that is theirs at the drop of a hat. Can I have your car? I want it.  That just doesn’t happen.

When we are asking our kids to share, we want to be realistic in the ask. I personally don’t like sharing my food. On occasion, I am fine going out to dinner and sharing food with friends and family, but if we are being honest, I really prefer not to. Yet, when we ask our kids to share and they don’t want to, we often make them.

There are a few problems embedded in the way we usually ask our kids to share. First, I don’t think kids actually know what ‘share’ means. They hear us say the word share over and over, but most of the time they aren’t exactly sure what we are asking of them. Second, often when we ask our kids to share, they really don’t want to.  So how do we help our kids understand what this world of “sharing” is all about?

Before launching into what has helped recently with Keener, it’s important to note that we need to keep a child’s development in mind when talking about sharing. ‘Theory of mind’ is an important social-cognitive skill where a child can not only understand their own thoughts, feelings, and wants, but but can distinguish them from what others may be thinking, feeling and wanting.

A good example of this skill involves the following scenario. Take a bag of pretzels and put toys inside the bag, and then ask a child what is in the bag. That child will say pretzels, and be surprised to find there are toys inside the bag instead. Then ask the child “what do you think your friend will say is in this bag?” If the child is three years old, he will say toys, because the child is only thinking about what he knows about the contents of the bag. But if the child is four years old, he will say pretzels, because the four year old can understand that his friend will be tricked just like he was. The four year old is better able to distinguish his thoughts and see that they might be different from his friend’s thoughts.

According to Child Encyclopedia, theory of mind develops without specific teaching, but there are ways to help it develop more quickly by:

  • engaging in rich pretend play;
  • talking about people’s thoughts, wants, and feelings, and the reasons why they act the way they do;
  • hearing and talking about stories, especially those involving surprises, secrets, tricks, and mistakes. These stories invite children to see things from different points of view (Red Riding Hood doesn’t know that the wolf is dressed up as grandma).

Language also plays a big role, and below is some of the language I have used to help Keener develop theory of mind and build his understanding about why I am asking him to share:

I know you love playing with the lawn mower. Do you know who else does? Your friend Clark. When he is over, he also loves playing with the lawn mower, just like you do! That’s why it is important to let Clark have a turn, just like you love having your turn.

You have to look with your eyes to see if a toy is available. Sometimes, someone will have something that you might want. If it is in their hands, they want it too! You can either use your words and ask them for a turn or you can play with something else and look to see when they put that toy down. When you don’t see anyone’s hands on that toy, you know it is available for you to play with.  *This one has worked particularly well with sibling based squabbles. Keener will now say to me, “Grace put it down. It’s available — I didn’t take it from her!” with a sense of pride that he now knows exactly when a toy is available for him to take.

What did you play with at school today?  Who else in your class likes playing with that toy? Sometimes toys can be shared, like playdough. There is usually enough playdough for anyone who wants to play with it. But sometimes there might be only one of something, like a truck. I know you love playing with that green truck at school and I’m guessing Will and Thomas also love playing with the green truck! Because that is a fun truck!

Lastly, deliberately model sharing. If Keener or Grace has something, I will make it a point to say Can I play with that toy please when you are finished? Can we please build with blocks together? The more they hear it, the more likely they are to use this language themselves. Give them the words you want them to use.