Asking the Right Questions

Positive queries lead children (and adults) to pause and think and even call on their highest understanding. As one six-year-old commented, “Sometimes questions help you learn what you already know.”
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I wish we could create a list of questions that make children want to talk. When it comes to creating conversation and learning, questions can be parent’s or teacher’s best friend. Positive queries lead children (and adults) to pause and think and even call on their highest understanding. As one six-year-old commented, “Sometimes questions help you learn what you already know.”

Most of us have been well-schooled in the art of “deficit thinking,” starting with “What’s wrong?” or “How can we fix this problem?” This orientation leads us simply to ask questions that make a strong impression on a child, like “Why would you ever do such a thing?” Unfortunately, this question rarely prompts a child to stop to answer. However, if we really want a child to reflect on a behavior or situation, a neutral question will often encourage him to open up. “Is there another way you could ask for that?” “How were you feeling toward your brother when you did that?” “Why do you think that’s against the rules?” “How could you make your friend feel better?” “How can we all feel happier?”

Questions, unlike lectures, can help overcome resistance. Instead of asking a child, “Why haven’t you cleaned up your room?” a parent could try inquiring, “What do you think a good first step would be?” In preschool at clean-up time, we ask, “Who would like to be in charge of putting away the small blocks?” We want to break down the task into “doable” steps as well as preserve a positive tone. We also try to avoid competitive question like “Who can get this done the most quickly?” since there will always be a winner and loser. Questions like “How can we help each other and get our chores don earlier?” promote cooperation.

The subject of asking the right positive question is actually a whole field of study called “appreciative inquiry” that has implications for creating change in every area of society. One of its premises is that forming the right question enables people to switch from a deficit orientation to one that builds strengths. You can look up this new approach to problem solving online.

We can also promote positive behavior by asking children questions when things are going well. At circle time a teacher might ask, “Tommy, how are you managing to sit so quietly?” or “Ceci, how did you stay with that puzzle so long?” These appreciative questions don’t necessarily call for an answer (though sometimes children will answer), but they do bring awareness to what self-control or concentration feels like. They can also be applied to group activities. “How did you cooperate to get so much done?” “How did our family have such a happy day?” When we speak from our hearts with real sincerity, a question like “How did you stay so patient when you had to wait for me?’ often makes a child beam.

For an experience of delight, try asking children about really expansive issues. In a program in England, researchers presented philosophical questions like “What is beauty?” to children. In a film called Socrates for Six-Year-Olds (available on YouTube), children discuss their thought processes, whether one can “think with the heart” and where thoughts are stored. One of the little girls said, “Sometimes I use up all my thoughts in the morning. Then I don’t have any for the rest of the day.” Philosophical questions based on positive thinking can change a child’s mood. Sometimes I ask children, “Why is today such a special day?” This usually begins a lively discussion about all the wonderful things that have happened. Asking children about their perceptions also builds their thinking skills. When your child asks, “Why?” try Socrates’ ancient thought-building process of answering a question with another query.

The questions we ask ourselves about ourselves may be the most important ones of all. How often do you ask yourself, “Why would you do something so stupid?” Asking ourselves positive questions like “What can I do differently next time?” provides a thoughtful role model for children. Even better, ask your family to offer their answers to self-nurturing questions like “What makes me feel uplifted?” “What did I do today that left me appreciating myself?” “Why do I feel grateful?” When can help the world learn the art of asking loving questions by starting in our own homes and classrooms.

Susan Isaacs Kohl, is director of the White Pony preschool in Lafayette. She is the author of The Best Things Parents Do (Conari 2004) and four other books and numerous articles for parents.

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