Only Asking Real Questions

April 10th, 2022
It's easy to accidentally ask children questions that aren't real questions. Perhaps the right answer is so obvious I don't realize in time that they might decide otherwise: "do you want to wait to eat your messy candy until we're out of the car?" Or I don't figure out that there was only one answer that would work until after I finish asking the question: "do you want to do your bath now, or before dinner? ... Oh, wait, we have guests coming over in the afternoon and we can't do the bath then, now's the only time that works."

I find that these interactions tend to go poorly, much worse than if I'd never asked a question. Something like, they thought they had a choice, try to make a choice, and now they're feeling me take that away.

I've tried pretty hard to get myself to stop doing this, and one strategy that has worked for me was deciding to stand by my mistakes. If I accidentally offer them a choice when I shouldn't have, I won't withdraw it if they choose (to my mind) badly. This isn't a completely strict rule: I can imagine foolish-enough things that I could accidentally ask that it wouldn't make sense to stand by. On the other hand, though, I've found I can recover from most things if I'm willing to put some extra effort. Going back to the messy candy example above, and imagining some further discussion:

  • Parent: Do you want to wait to eat your messy candy until we're out of the car?

  • Child: I want to eat it now!

  • Parent: That's gonna make a mess everywhere. I don't think that's a good idea.

  • Child: But I want the candy now!

  • Parent: If it makes a mess, will you clean it up?

  • Child: No.

  • Parent: How will it get cleaned up?

  • Child: You can do it.

  • Parent: I don't want to clean it up.

  • Child: I don't want to either.

  • Parent: If you make a mess, it's your job to clean it up.

  • Child: Ok, I'll do it.

  • Parent: Will you put up a $1 bond? Where I get to keep the dollar if you don't clean up?

  • Child: Ok. [eats messy candy]

  • [time passes, arrival, getting out of the car]

  • Parent: It looks like there's a mess on the seat.

  • Child: I don't want to clean it up.

  • Parent: If you don't, I will keep your dollar.

  • Child: [cleans up, slowly, with parental help depending on age]

This definitely requires a lot more time and back-and-forth than just saying "sorry, I shouldn't have offered that, we shouldn't eat messy candy in the car". But it avoids going back on what you offered, is more respectful, and also gives an opportunity to show why you didn't think it was a good idea.

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