If you’ve ever been around a 2-5-year-old, you’ve likely been liberally peppered with questions. Sometimes to the point of frontal lobe fatigue to your adult brain. In fact, often it seems that nearly every word coming out of a young child’s mouth is interrogative. (Other than their firm grasp of the declarative, one-word sentence, “No.”)
But gradually, the questioning, curious mind of tender youth begins to morph. Societal conditioning ever so subtly shapes young minds by implying that knowing answers is good, and asking questions is bad. Pop quizzes, testing, and aptitude evaluations all reinforce the value of rote memorization and right answers, with almost no educational focus on learning to frame effective questions. Before long, not knowing the answer to a question becomes a source of anxiety. By the time a person reaches adulthood, their job, identity, and relationships focus on getting things done, black/white thinking, making quick decisions, delivering instant results, and even (dare I say) validating one’s own biases and assumptions. (For example, questions beginning with phrases like, “Don’t you think that” or “Wouldn’t you agree” are a great tipoff that the person asking the question isn’t really interested in what you think, but rather in confirming their own point of view.)
But how well is this system working for society? And is this really what we want to model for our kids? Let’s pause for a moment and consider the sobering fact that everything—literally everything—we know about our world, our universe, and humanity has been brought to birth through people just like you and me being curious about the unknown and asking powerful questions, and then generating actions to discover the answers. In other words, the questions we ask matter. Which do you think would provoke more thought, curiosity, or introspection—asking someone, “What are we going to do about this problem?” or instead asking, “What possibilities can we see in this situation?”?
In her book The Art of the Question, Marilee Goldberg declares, “A paradigm shift occurs when a question is asked inside the current paradigm that can only be answered from outside it.”
A powerful question:
- generates curiosity in the listener
- stimulates reflective conversation
- is thought-provoking
- surfaces underlying assumptions
- invites creativity and new possibilities
- generates energy and forward movement
- channels attention and focuses inquiry
- stays with participants
- touches a deep meaning
- evokes more questions
Sally Ann Roth, of The Public Conversations Project, a group that helps create constructive dialogue on divisive public issues, offers many excellent guidelines for effective questions, many of which translate well to the parent/child relationship:
- Is this question relevant to the real life and real work of the people who will be exploring it?
- Is this a genuine question—a question to which I/we really don’t know the answer?
- What “work” do I want this question to do? That is, what kind of conversation, meanings, and feelings do I imagine this question will evoke in those who will be exploring it?
- Is this question likely to invite fresh thinking/feeling? Is it familiar enough to be recognizable and relevant—and different enough to call forward a new response?
- What assumptions or beliefs are embedded in the way this question is constructed?
- Is this question likely to generate hope, imagination, engagement, creative action, and new possibilities or is it likely to increase a focus on past problems and obstacles?
- Does this question leave room for new and different questions to be raised as the initial question is explored?
Here’s where parents and kids benefit from considering questions together: questions foster continuing curiosity in kids, and get them comfortable with the idea that it’s ok not to have all the answers immediately. That paradigm shift, in turn, helps prevent kids from developing anxiety in situations where the answers may not be coming to them quickly, but rather helps them to relax into the organic process of having “The Beginner’s Mind.” (Beginners aren’t yet experts on a topic but through patient and diligent effort, spurred by the right questions, they can become experts.) Questions help parents discern and understand what biases and paradigms may already be developing in the mind of their child that would benefit from gentle redirection. Questions also help the child see their own strengths, and feel good about who they already are, which builds self-esteem and thereby frees up emotional bandwidth for fresh endeavors.
These benefits, as well as the potential for many others, are the reasons why every one of my books has effective questions at the end of the story for parents to consider with their children. I warmly invite you to share these fun books and their thought-provoking questions with your child and share your experiences with me.
Here are a few sample questions from some of my picture books:
- What are some ways you can make getting ready for school fun without being late?
- Have you ever imagined doing something brave or heroic?
- How was Martin’s imagination causing a problem?
- What things do you enjoy learning about?
- Do you need to have super powers to be a hero?
- How could you be a hero?
- Who is your greatest hero and why?
- Do your parents make rules that you don’t understand?
- If you were a parent, what kind of rules would you make? Why?