When a child does something “wrong”—pushing her brother, for instance, or sneaking off to eat a piece of candy that you said she couldn’t have—how do you respond? Many parents immediately turn to consequences by sending kids to their rooms or dumping the entire contents of the candy bowl into the bin.
But punishment alone doesn’t help children think through the consequences of their actions for themselves—which means that method isn’t always your best parenting play.
That’s why, when parents are faced with a problem behavior, I always encourage them to use “curiosity questions” to help children explore what happened. Unlike punishment alone, curiosity questions encourage reflection. In other words, if you want kids to make good decisions, you need to help them learn to think through positive responses—and that’s a skill they can apply to the myriad problems and choices that will arise in life.
Another benefit? These kinds of questions keep you and your child connected and communicating. Take a look at the examples below:
- Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
- How do you feel about what happened?
- What did you learn from this?
- How can you use what you learned in the future?
- What ideas do you have for solutions now?
- What’s your plan for ____? (picking up your toys, finishing your puzzle, etc.…)
You’ll notice that none of the suggested questions begin with “Why did you…?” That’s because even though the question may be a well-intended attempt to understand behavior, it can sound accusatory and trigger defensiveness in your child. The point of curiosity questions is to get into your child’s world without making her feel as though she’s being put on the spot or done something wrong—and remember, deliver your questions with compassion, an even vocal tone, and without making her feel belittled.
5 Guidelines When Using Curiosity Questions
1. Take advantage of the gift of time. Wait until you are both feeling calm.
2. Be authentic. Use your internal wisdom to show you how to get into your child’s world with empathy and acceptance.
3. Practice the art of listening. It can be surprisingly difficult to just listen openly to your child. Notice your own urges to jump in, offer the “right” solution, or to just fix the problem yourself—and restrain yourself. Remember that curiosity questions are meant to help a child explore his thoughts and feelings and find his own solutions.
4. Encourage child-driven solutions. When the solutions come from your child—even if you help her brainstorm and then hand over the reins—she will learn that she can make valuable contributions by using her decision-making skills and by being respectful.
5. Move on. After you’ve worked through things with your child, help her acquire that all-important quality of self-forgiveness by not dwelling on the situation. After all, mistakes—which we all make—are simply opportunities to learn.