I (David) recently had a conversation with my 16-year old son during which I tried to talk to him for 15 minutes without asking a single question. Why would a parent of a teenager do such a thing? … Because I was told to. I’m a clinical psychology student, and in one of my classes, we are exploring the benefits of eliminating questions from counseling interactions. This was homework.
In this conversation, I took the opportunity to address a behavioral concern. Our son is great, and doesn’t give us much to worry about; but he’s a teenager, and we live together, and this means we occasionally struggle with opposing perspectives. While we talked, I had to work hard to swallow several questions. Instead, I described the behavior I had seen, and told him about my confusion regarding his choices. When he spoke up, I tried simply to understand his perspective and reflect his words as best I could.
It’s crazy hard to avoid questions in a conversation with teens. Questions are so easy: “What were you thinking?”; “Did it occur to you to think about someone other than yourself?”; “Are you planning on doing your homework anytime soon?” Questions like this are not productive. Of course there are times when legitimate and important questions need asking. But think about it: one of the great challenges of the adolescent and teen years is feeling like your parents don’t get you. What a revolution we could start in our homes by dialing down the interrogations and instead working hard to show our kids that we understand. Look at it this way: we already know the answers to each of the above questions (“I don’t know.”; “No.”; and “Whatever.”) It’s not that hard to remember what it was like to be a teenager.
Questions remind kids of school, especially when coming from an authority (like a parent). When we ask a question of a young person, they just know that there must be a right answer, and it’s probably not the one they are thinking of. We’re learning that our goal when asking questions is often not to learn something from our child, but to make a point of our own. To a kid, questions don’t feel like an invitation to dialog, but direction. Rhetorical questions might be fine when making a speech or preaching a sermon, but they are not the best choice when talking to someone we care about face to face.
If you’re like us, cutting back on questions will feel like quitting coffee. Easy to talk about, hard to do. But we don’t have to overthink it: when we’re concerned enough to have one of those talks, start by saying something true (“Homework is a pain …”) and see where it leads.
In my conversation with my son, during which I asked zero questions, I managed to reflect what he was saying, and even, in a couple cases, put words to what he wasn’t saying. When I did that, he would nod his head and agree with me. Imagine that.
Finally, after we had each said our piece, and there had been a period of silence, he looked up with a slightly uncomfortable expression … “Is there some question I’m supposed to be answering now?” When I assured him there wasn’t, he said, “I’ve heard you.” And he had.
[Originally posted in the Parenting On The Peninsula blog.]