Until recently, I often had to repeat over and over again the same requests to my son. For doing chores, helping in the kitchen, or tidying up his room, a friendly request would usually end with a screaming row. Or I just gave up and did it myself. It was exhausting, frustrating and, worst of all, I saw no improvements to the situation.
I wondered if my child was lazy, incapable or possibly deaf – and why it was so difficult!
How it feels like to be ‘told’ what to do
As a Positive Discipline Educator I had to learn a different approach, and now understand how it feels when someone is always telling you what to do and when to do it. And I have changed the way I communicate – to the better.
In Positive Discipline we practice this with an activity called ‘Telling versus Asking’, and it works like this: Six to eight parents line up and one of them role-playing the child listens to a set of phrases read by the parents such as:
- Go clean up your room!
- Go brush your teeth!
- Stop fighting with your brother!
- Go to bed – now!
- Do your homework!
- Hurry up and get dressed or you’ll miss the bus, etc.
This activity helps the adult role-playing the child get into the child’s world and to ‘feel’ what it’s like to be the child with a parent telling them what to do.
Common feedback from the adult role-playing the child is that they feel un-motivated and a bit discouraged by these phrases. Sometimes they even feel resentful and resistant. After the fourth ‘telling’ parent, they merely stop listening!
It is also revealing to watch the body language of the person role-playing the child. The “child” becomes more and more resistant to following through with the “telling” line or command provided by the parents.
So, what else can you say to motivate your kids and make them listen, instead of telling them what to do? In Positive Discipline, one tool we propose is asking ‘curiosity questions’.
In the second part of the role play activity, parents read a different set of phrases to the adult role-playing the child. These phrases are:
- What do you need to do to have your room cleaned up by dinner time?
- What do you need to do so your teeth will feel really clean?
- What can you and your brother do to solve this problem?
- What would happen if you don’t do your homework?
- What do you need to do to get ready for bed?
- What is your plan for doing your homework?
- What do you need to do so you won’t miss the bus? Etc.
We call these phrases ‘Curiosity Questions’. And yes, it takes a few more words to ‘ask’ curiosity questions that invite discussion and reflection. But doing so incites children to think and to feel more capable. It teaches valuable social and life skills from a challenge as it helps children explore the consequences of their choices – as opposed to imposing consequences on them.
After this exercise, the parent role-playing the child reports feeling validated, being taken seriously, and having the opportunity to take responsibility for his or her own actions. A very different feeling than the resentment felt when having to listen to the ‘telling’ phrases.
Telling incites rebellion and defensive thinking
According to Dr. Jane Nelsen, founder of Positive Discipline1, telling or ‘imposing consequences’ often invites rebellion and defensive thinking instead of explorative thinking.
The key to empowering and helping children explore solutions is to stop telling and to start asking curiosity questions. Much too often adults tell children what to do, why, what could happen, what caused it to happen, how the child should feel about it, what the child should learn from it, and what the child should do about it.
This is lecturing or nagging the child. The natural consequence of this type of approach is that they stop listening. As parents we tend to get so caught up in having our own way, that we become blind to how badly we communicate. We rarely pause to reflect how a slight shift in approach could achieve a better result both for our child and for ourselves. It is this shift which Positive Discipline hopes to instill in parents that are interested in having kids that listen.
Asking incites cooperation and problem solving
By asking questions, solutions come from the child. New resolutions can also be found together with a brainstorm, and the child can choose what will be most helpful. They learn that their ideas count which incites commitment. Children learn by thinking for themselves and parents can encourage their problem-solving ability and thus empower them to be responsible.
Practicing Curiosity Questions
It takes practice to change habits from telling to asking. It took me a while to feel comfortable with it, trusting my son and letting him take responsibility. The good news is that with patience and practice it works. And it’s encouraging to see both yourself and the child progress!
A step by step guide to practicing ‘asking instead of telling’:
- First, notice how often you ‘tell’ instead of ‘ask’.
- Think about how you could have engaged in asking instead of telling.
- Practice by having a set of phrases ready beforehand so you can use them when needed.
- Try, even if you feel uncomfortable at first.
- Be patient with your child and yourself. Both parents and child need practice and time to change habits.
- When it works, celebrate to encourage both yourself and your child.
- When it doesn’t work, keep asking curiosity questions to understand why. You may be surprised when you find the reason!
Naturally, I still have my moments of telling (or yelling). But as Alfred Adler2 said, mistakes are opportunities to learn, and we need the courage to be imperfect. The path to success is not to give up.
When children hear an adult command (tell), a signal goes to the brain that invites resistance. When children hear a respectful question (ask), a signal goes to the brain to search for an answer. In the process, they feel capable and are more likely to cooperate.
Children will listen to you AFTER they feel heard. This is exactly what happened to my son. Today he is a big promoter of Positive Discipline and often reminds me if I revert to ‘telling’.
I learned how to use these tools, and so can you. If you are interested in learning more about Parenting with Positive Discipline and the workshops in the lake Geneva region, please visit my website www.ipositivelinc.com.