Saturday, December 22, 2012


Helping children explore the consequences of their choices is much different from imposing consequences on them. Exploring invites the participation of children to think for themselves and figure things out for themselves, and to decide what is important to them and to decide what they want. The end result is focusing on solutions to the problem instead of consequences.

Imposing consequences often invites rebellion and defensive thinking instead of explorative thinking. The key to helping children explore is to stop telling and to start asking curiosity questions.

Too often adults tell children what happened, what caused it to happen, how the child should feel about it, what the child should learn from it, and what the child should do about it. It is much more respectful and encouraging when we ask what happened, what the child thinks caused it, how the child feels about it, what the child has learned, what ideas the child has to solve the problem, or how the child can use what she has learned in the future. This is the true meaning of education, which comes from the Latin word educare’, which means to draw forth. Too often adults try to stuff in instead of draw forth, and then wonder why children don’t learn.

 Watch this video for examples of Asking vs Telling.

Typical curiosity questions:

  • What were you trying to accomplish?
  • 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?

I call these typical curiosity questions because it is important not to have a script. The point is to get into the child’s world. You’ll notice that "Why?" isn’t one of the suggested questions. The reason is that "Why?" usually sounds accusatory and invites defensiveness. This isn’t always the case. All of the questions can be asked in an accusatory tone of voice. "Why?" works when children feel that you are truly interested in their point of view.

The following guidelines will help when using curiosity questions:

  1. Don’t have an agenda. You aren’t getting into the child’s world if you have an agenda about how the child should answer these questions. That is why they are called curiosity questions.
  2. Don’t ask questions if either of you are upset. Wait until you are both feeling calm.
  3. Ask curiosity questions from your heart. Use your wisdom to show you how to get into the child’s world and show empathy and acceptance.

One of my favorite examples is the time my daughter shared with me her intention to get drunk at a party. I gulped and said, "Tell me more. Why are you thinking of doing that." She said, "Lots of kids do it and it looks like they are having fun." I stifled my temptation to lecture and asked, "What do your friends say about you now that you don’t drink." She thought about this and said, "They are always telling me how much they admire me and how proud they are of me." I continued, "What do you think they’ll say after you get drunk?" Again, I could watch her think before she said, "I’ll bet they’ll be disappointed." I followed with, "How do you think you’ll feel about yourself." I could tell this question made her think a little deeper. She paused a little longer before saying. "I’ll probably feel like a loser." This was soon followed by, "I don’t think I will."

If I hadn’t known about curiosity questions and the value of helping her explore the consequences of her choices, I would have been tempted to impose a punitive consequence—such as grounding her. Chances are that this would have inspired her to get sneaky instead of trusting that she could discuss things with me. The biggest loss would have been that she would not have had the opportunity to explore for herself the consequences of her choices and what she really wants in her life.

Parents and teachers have an ingrained habit of telling instead of asking. I jokingly challenge them just to notice how often they "tell" for two weeks, and to put a quarter in a jar every time they do. At the end of two weeks they will have enough money for the vacation of their dreams.

The suggested curiosity questions mentioned are what I call “Conversational Curiosity questions" because you are inviting a conversation. Sometimes curiosity questions can be very simple. I call the following examples “Motivational Curiosity Questions.”) Instead of telling a child, "Don’t forget your coat," ask, "What do you need if you don’t want to be cold?" Instead of, "Brush your teeth," ask, "What do you need to do so you’ll have clean teeth?" Instead of, "Go to bed," ask, "What was our agreement about bedtime?" As you think about the difference between "telling" and "asking," which do you think is more empowering to children? Which invites them to think and feel more cooperative?"

When the solutions come from the children, or are brainstormed together and the child chooses what will be most helpful, they learn that they can make a valuable contribution when using respectful decision-making skills. Children learn that mistakes aren’t horrible if you don’t beat yourself up about them and if you look at mistakes as ways to learn.

Parents and teachers who are just beginning to use positive discipline methods should work on only one thing at a time and remember to have the courage to be imperfect. To end the discipline war, (peace in the world can start with peace in homes and schools) it is imperative to stay out of power struggles and create an atmosphere where the long term effects for both children and adults are mutual respect, accountability, a sense of capability, resourcefulness and problem-solving skills. It is important to see mistakes as opportunities—to learn. Positive Discipline methods, including positive time-out, focusing on solutions, and asking curiosity questions help children feel capable and teaches them valuable social and life skills. A sense of belonging, significance, connection and cooperation are the long-term effects.


Anonymous said...

What do you do when your child consistently answers "I don't know", or "Nothing". ? This is where your method breaks down for us.

Jane Nelsen said...

It is important to use your own intuition as a parent when applying any of the Positive Discipline Tools. "I don't know" is a very common response from children. There are many options for parents. If an immediate response is not required, you could say "Think about it and come get me when you have some ideas." Or you can check some things out with the child. Ask them what you think might be going on and then check it out. "Does that sound right?" Or relate a story from your childhood. "When I was your age, I had a similar situation and this is how I felt and how I solved the problem." Also remember that the feeling behind what you do is more important than what you do. If you are asking Curiosity Questions with anger or in an accusatory tone, it is very common for children to shut down and say "I don't know."