Parents: Use The Power of Response Questions
By Bryan Korth, PhD.
One evening toward the end of dinner my kids and I were discussing the events of our day. During this pretty typical conversation, my 10-year-old son took my wife and me off guard when he asked a question we were not expecting. He simply asked, “Dad, what does gay mean?” I glanced at my wife and we gave each other the “look” that parents give each other when they don’t know what to say and hope the other will say something. In that short moment, so much crossed my mind.
Neither my wife and I have a problem discussing many questions that come from curious children regarding sexual intimacy and we are rarely shocked by questions that may come up out of the blue. But it had never crossed my mind that my kids would have questions about sexual orientation. I wasn’t prepared to answer. So, I drew on my early childhood training in order to bail myself out. I simply asked, “Why do you want to know?” He proceeded to explain to me that during recess that day he heard some of kids calling someone “gay” and wanted to know its meaning and why people would use it to tease or be mean to someone.
The ball was now back in our court. But at least we had a clearer starting point and could address what was really on his mind. Imagine if we had jumped to the conclusion that he was inquiring about sexual orientation, whether of his own or someone else? Who knows where that conversation would have gone and the confusion we would have incited. Instead, we could simply explain that some feel an attraction for the same gender and refer to themselves as gay. Because people are uncomfortable with this, they use the word “gay” disrespectfully and in a demeaning way. A brief conversation ensued about being respectful of those who may share they are attracted to the same-gender.
Benefits of response questions
“Why do you want to know?” or similarly “What do you think?” are powerful response questions that have multiple benefits.
- Time to think. Asking a follow-up question gives a parent some needed time to collect their thoughts, especially if a topic has caught them off guard.
- Clarification for the parent. It helps when a parent knows what is really behind their child’s question–what provoked it and what the context is—empowering parents to provide responses that are much more in-tune to what the child is really asking. Remember, especially for young children, asking questions is a natural part of childhood. They are naturally curious. At the same time, the initial question doesn’t tell the whole story of what is really on their mind and they need help to articulate their thoughts.
- Empowerment for the child. Response questions give children a sense of validation, especially when they may already sense that their initial question may be sensitive in nature. The last thing parents want to do is turn a questioning child away, make the child feel embarrassed, or leave him or her to find the answer on their own. Those responses can be much more damaging than a parent’s awkward reply. When the child feels validated, an open and honest dialogue is nurtured, and she is much more likely to bring other sensitive questions to her parents throughout her childhood and adolescence.
A humorous but poignant example
A colleague of mine, Brad Wilcox*, shared an example of when his mother was a 2nd grade teacher and a young boy came to her desk and asked, “Teacher, how do you spell ‘penis’?” What teacher or parent wouldn’t be caught off guard with that? How quickly our minds would jump to conclusions about why he needs to spell that word, not to mention our own comfort level of saying that word. It would have been easy for the teacher to dismiss the boy’s question and respond, “That is something you need to ask your mom or dad about.” Fortunately, she likely relied on her experience of having been asked many awkward questions and simply asked, “Why do you want to know?” The young boy said, “I am trying to spell ‘happiness.’ I got the ‘happi-’ part but I don’t’ know how to spell the ‘-piness’ part.” No need for an anatomy lesson or to awkwardly avoid that word. The response question gave her time to recover from the shock of the question, find out really what was behind the question, and helped the student feel comfortable asking his teacher questions.
Children ask questions not just as an indication of their natural curiosity, but as a manifestation of trust. And it’s not just what a parent says, but how they respond that validates that trust and invites children to continue to return to the parent.
Remember that the tone of the response question is equality important. If response questions are used with a tone that sends a message that the child has asked about something ridiculous or awkward, the child will likely reply with something like, “Never mind.” But if asked with a true intent to understand and listen, the child will accept the invitation to share more.
Over the years, when questions become even more personal and sensitive, both teen and parent will feel comfortable asking and responding. But asking, “Why do you want to know?” will never lose its power, regardless of a child’s age.
Tips for using response questions effectively
- Use response questions to:
- Give you time to collect your thoughts, instead of “freaking out”
- Find out the context — what is really behind his or her question
- Validate the child, which builds trust and nurtures an open dialogue for future discussions
- Remember to use a sincere tone.
- Be purposeful about gestures and body language. It isn’t just what you say but how you say it.
- Don’t embarrass your child.
- Stop talking and listen.
- Try to understand the child’s point of view.
- Reinforce feelings of empathy and love.
- Be sure you have sufficiently answered the initial question. Ask your child, “Is that what you wanted to know?”
- Leave the door open for future communication. Encourage your child to follow up if they have more questions.
For more tips and ideas on having mindful discussions with your children, check out 30 Days to a Stronger Child, available on Amazon. Some of the topics include: respect, accountability, positive self-talk, empathy, addiction, gratitude, critical thinking, and many more–30 lessons in all.
*Story used with permission
Byran Korth is an associate professor in Religious Education at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He received a bachelors (1993) and masters (1995) degrees in Family Sciences at BYU, followed by a PhD in Human Development and Family Studies (2000) at Auburn University. During his graduate studies, he focused on Family Life Education, Parenting Education, parent-child relationships, and the socio-emotional development of young children. He put this training and experience into practice as the Director of Children’s Programs of a large public-private early learning center managed by Auburn University. He then joined BYU in 2004, addressing early childhood development in the Department of Teacher Education. He is now using his many years of training and experience to teach undergraduate courses addressing the central purpose of families in our everyday lives. He and his wife have three children and live in Springville, Utah.