The other day my 7-year-old was engrossed in ‘den’ making and called for me to come and help tie a rope. I was mid making pancakes and knew that’d I’d be liable to char the lot if I allowed myself to be distracted. So I said, “Yes I will, in a minute, I’ve nearly finished”. He puffed in exasperation and sighed, “Oh, Muuuummmmy”.
Something about the way he said it caught my attention. I queried what it was that he found so annoying – was it the fact I couldn’t come straight away maybe, or the way I said it, or something else??
His reply was awesome: “No Mummy, it’s because you always say ‘in a second’, ‘in a minute’ and it never actually means that!”
And he’s spot on! When I think about it, I sometimes spend practically the whole day saying things like, ‘hang on a minute’, ‘wait a second’, ‘okay give me five minutes to finish this’, ‘right, we’ve got to leave in a minute.’
And he’s absolutely right that sometimes, often in fact, it means very little; I habitually say ‘in a minute’ to buy some time, then get distracted by something or someone, and it doesn’t actually happen until a lot later than one minute!
So I said, “You are so right J, when I say ‘a minute’ it doesn’t always mean ‘a minute’ does it, that’s so helpful to hear.” He looked at me in mild surprise and said, “Is it Mummy, shall I write it down for you then?” I wasn’t quite sure what he meant but he seemed very engaged and eager and, plus, I was grateful for the extra pancake making time. This is what he wrote:
I laughed, particularly about the ‘later’, and suggested that maybe I’m not very good at estimating! I explained that I probably say phrases like this out of habit and without thinking, and requested that he pull me up on this in the future.
I could have been annoyed by his tone, or just ignored it (both frequent occurrences 😉 ). But being curious on this occasion gave me so much insight into how he feels, as well as genuinely helpful changes that I can make.
It empowered him too in that it reinforced some important messages; that I respect his opinion as valuable and significant, that I was truly listening, that he has a right to pick me up on things, and that we are all continuously growing and open to making changes.
And now when I pat out my auto-respond ‘yes, in a minute’, I usually catch myself and we both laugh. And then I do a rewind and try to give him a much more accurate and helpful approximation!
So how does being curious help parenting?
Curiosity takes us out of self-absorption and moves the focus to striving to understand others; it’s the starting point for exploring the motivations, intentions, thinking and rationale that lie behind outward behaviour.
Rather than just unthinkingly reacting to something our child says or does, adopting an attitude of curiosity reminds us to pause, ask questions and come up with a considered response based on their world view. It helps put ourselves in their shoes and be in a better position to truly empathise and acknowledge their feelings.
Remembering to be curious requires consistent conscious effort at first. We often get so caught up in the daily grind and habitual ways of doing things that it can be easy to forget to ask questions, particularly of our children. And sometimes I think we mistakenly assume that we know more than them, that we know exactly what they need and even what they’re thinking.
What are the best sorts of questions to ask?
The first step to becoming more curious is simply to make a conscious decision to be more curious, to actively want to explore and delve deeper.
And from there, it’s all about eliciting information by asking questions in the right way; that is, open-ended statements that naturally draw forth information from the speaker without being polluted or influenced by any of your own ‘stuff’ (e.g. opinions, assumptions, beliefs etc.) To do this:
- Check that your tone of voice is genuinely, warm, kind and interested. If you (or your child) are feeling annoyed or stressed or rushed, it’s probably not the right time for curiosity questions.
- It’s best to avoid ‘why’ questions as they can often sound a little critical or harsh. ‘How…’ or ‘What…’ questions tend to be the most illuminating. Try ‘What was X like?’, ‘How do you feel about what happened?’ ‘What can you learn from this?’ or for problem solving/prompting action ‘What’s your plan for getting homework done/dressed/making up with your sister?’
- Ask a single question and then pause and listen without trying to solve, fix, jump in or direct to the answer you would like to hear/think they should give. This is surprisingly hard!
- Keep curious by asking follow up questions e.g. Is there anything else about…? Could you tell me more? Can you give me an example?