Asking Valuing Questions
Episode #10 of the course Parenting skills to raise responsible, mature children by Roger K. Allen, PhD
In this lesson, I’m introducing the skill of asking valuing questions. This is learning to ask questions that help our kids take responsibility.
The two skills I’m most likely to use during most problem-solving conversations with children, particularly teens, are listening and valuing. I start by listening. I want to be a safe place so my children can open up and tell me what they think and feel without fear that I’ll criticize or take over the conversation.
Then I shift my strategy to asking valuing questions. These are questions that help children explore consequences, identify what they really want, and learn the actions necessary to bring it about. The skill is used when a child has a problem but needs help knowing how to deal with it.
Questions are powerful because they put our kids in the driver’s seat and enable them to move beyond mere compliance (or rebellion) to live from personal responsibility and autonomy.
There is a pattern to the questions:
1. What will happen if such and such continues? We don’t just ask this question once. We may follow up the first answer with, “What else?” or, “Can you think of anything more?” We want them to think deeply.
2. Is that what you want? They need to see that what is happening is not what they want in the long run. When asked to think honestly about what is happening, children begin to realize this trade-off.
3. What do you want? This step invites children to begin to clarify their vision and what is most important to them—what is more important than what’s happening now.
4. What can you do to accomplish this? This is the heart of the process and places responsibility squarely on the shoulders of children. The initial reaction of many children, when faced with this question, is to blame or talk about what others could or should do. It is necessary to keep the focus on what the child in front of you can do. What can you control or not control?
Two qualifications about these questions. First, there are many variations to each question. Second, we don’t always need to ask all these questions. Sometimes a single question is enough, such as, “What are the consequences if you do that?” or, “What options do you see?” or, “What can you do to make that happen?”
The important lesson for parents is that you help your children discover their inner resourcefulness and ability to choose by asking questions rather than lecturing or solving problems for them.
Here’s an example. Beth (15) and Mary (13) are sisters who seem to bicker all the time. Their mother decides to use valuing questions to talk to Beth.
Mother: “Let me ask you something, Beth. What’s going to happen if you and Mary continue fighting as you have been lately?”
Beth: “Well, you should be talking to Mary. She’s the one who starts it.”
“No matter who starts it, do you like fighting with your sister?”
“I don’t know. Not really, but I can’t help it.”
“What do you mean that you can’t help it?”
“I just get so mad that I want to make her shut up.”
Mother listens, again, as Beth expresses their feelings. “Has your approach worked?”
“What do you think, is this going to get better or worse, considering how things are going?”
“Worse, I guess.”
“Is that what you want?”
“What would you like in your relationship with your sister? How would you like things to be?”
“I’d just like some peace. I wish she’d leave me alone.”
“I get that, Beth. This really is frustrating for you. So, let’s think about some options here. What kinds of things could you do and say that might help her stop bugging you and leave you alone?”
Initially, Beth is a little resistant to this question. But her mother persists by asking such questions as: “Is it okay with you if it doesn’t get better?” and, “What can you control and not control in your relationship with Mary?” and, “What might you be able to do or say that could help?”
As her mother continues asking her questions, Beth starts to take some responsibility by talking about her own behaviors and not Mary’s.
Mother: “Let’s brainstorm. What might you be able to do or say so that Mary would be less likely to bug you?”
“I could tell her I really don’t like it.”
“How would you do that so she’d really be willing to listen and not ignore you?”
Beth is thoughtful for a moment. “I suppose I’d need to start the talk in a friendly way.”
“Good. How would you do that?”
“I’d go to her room and ask her how gymnastics is going. She’d probably like that. Then I’d tell her I don’t like how we’ve been fighting lately.”
Mother: “How might they respond?”
The two talk it over, with Mother coaching Beth by helping her continue to think through what she might say and how she might say it. They explore a few different scenarios until Beth is feeling more confident.
Mother: “This sounds really good, Beth. You’re showing a lot of maturity by thinking about this. Why don’t you find a time to talk to her and then let me know how it goes?”
Such a shift may begin in one conversation. Sometimes it will take more, if trust is low and we have patterns of blame and arguing. But if we persist, our children will hear the difference in our approach and start looking within instead of defending and arguing. By asking questions, we help them mature and take personal responsibility. I invite you to look for opportunities to ask questions rather than lecturing or giving too much advice.
Well, here we are at the end of this course. Ten lessons about parenting in ten days. I hope you have enjoyed this journey, and I invite you to continue seeking opportunities to use these skills. You’ll get better as you practice. Thanks for letting me be your guide, and I wish you my best as you raise responsible, mature children.
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