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Telling vs Asking

Difference tell ask

What’s the difference between telling and asking?

I’m a teller by nature. It seems easier. Maybe just more efficient, really. I tell my child what to do and then she does it. I tell her the answer to the question she asked and she submissively accepts it; no (more) questions.

That may be some kind of parenting dream world. But it sure isn’t reality. And when we really consider the implications of this type of parent/child relationship the short-term peace we accomplish does not bring about the long-term life skills we desire.

When we tell our kids to do routine tasks over and over again we lose a great opportunity to help grow their capacity to think for themselves. Kids who are raised in a home with ‘tellers’ as parents become conditioned to tune out their parents’ requests and demands.  (Maybe it could be called “parent-deafness”.)

We’ve also seen that kids who consistently are told what to do can easily become dependent on others’ directives. They don’t grow their ability to look around and see what needs to happen. Instead, they rely on other people to tell them what to do and when to do it.

In my experience coaching hundreds of parents over the years, I’ve encouraged them to ask questions of their kids to activate higher-level thinking.

Here are a few examples that might help you better incorporate questions into your daily routines:

What parents often say: Get ready for bed!

Some options for questions parents could ask instead:
What time is it? What usually happens at about this time? What are all the things that need to happen to get to bed on time? What do you want to do first? What happens if you make it to bed on time?

Likely result over time:
You get to affirm your child for responding well to your questions and acknowledge how responsible they are becoming. You can lovingly affirm good choices and still gently hold your child accountable when things have gotten off track.

What parents often say: Do your homework!

Some options for questions parents could ask instead:
How are things looking for homework tonight? How long do you expect it to take? What’s on the calendar? Are there other things that are going on tonight that are important to you or others?

Likely result over time:
You learn to hear your child’s perspective. The responsibility and time management of doing homework is placed primarily on your child. You help your child remember the expectations and consider what else may be on the family calendar for the evening.

When I coach parents, I encourage them to have the long-term goal in mind. Questions are not a magic pill or quick fix that will turn your child into an expert at immediate obedience. When you begin asking more questions, you are likely going to be met with a lot of “I don’t know” and/or shoulder shrugs. This approach will likely be new to your kids and they may not know what to do with it, so expect some growing pains as they learn a new way of doing things!

Here are a couple pointers when asking your kids questions:
Be kind.
Be curious.
Be patient.
Be playful.

(Try to avoid questions that sound sarcastic or patronizing. “You don’t know? How many times have I told you and you still don’t know?”)

Asking questions

Over the next week, put some effort into noticing how much you tell vs. how much you ask. Have you found that you’ve been over-the-top in your demands? Consider confessing to your kids that you’ve been impatient lately and that you’d like to change. Ask them if they have any suggestions about how you could be less ‘bossy’.  

As your kids become confident in what is expected of them, they may begin to proactively take on more responsibility. The result over time? A greater sense of peace and connection in your home.

Watch this short (1:36) video of Chad talking more about this idea: 

Do you feel like everything’s a fight? It’s exhausting, isn’t it? Check out our online course: The Power of Questions: Less Arguing. More Wisdom. This 4-session course will teach you how to stop arguing with your child and cultivate wisdom by asking thoughtful and curious questions.

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Chad Hayenga
Chad Hayenga
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