You'll never hear a parent say, “Our Billy is such a follower! He never second guesses anything someone tells him to do!”
You want your child to think for themselves.
But leadership is not a quality we all need to have.
A quality worth cultivating is the ability to ask, "Why?"
But "why" can make us cry. Toddlers repetitive questions, questioned family traditions, or poor choices...you get the idea. "Why?" is not always a question we want to answer.
While the trait to question the status quo defined people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan B. Anthony and Albert Einstein, it's also driven parents of toddlers to adults to snap back, "Because!"
We want our kids to question. Time Magazine agrees. Millennial parents hope to raise a generation of forward thinkers rather than those who just go along the flow.
Easy to say. Harder to do.
We're in the trenches of active duty parenting. It's hard to follow the path that leads to more questions.
"Why, why, why?!"
Kids needs to ask why. And we need to let them.
Encouraging children to challenge us is challenging because we want them to respect us.
Our boundaries. Our beliefs. Our values.
Children running wild, skipping school, destroying property, and spitting out veggies is not how we envision this whole family thing is going down. On the flip side, who wants little robot babies who regurgitate only what we feed into them?
Question: How do we find a balance of getting kids to question us... without driving us crazy with the whys?
Answer: Place boundaries on a child's actions, not a child's thoughts.
Our job as parents is teach our kids how to be productive adults. To do this we have to give them some basic guidelines on how not to be a jerk. That means placing boundaries on actions, but not thoughts.
Here’s the secret phrase every parent needs:
"What do YOU think?"
That's it. This simple phrase can open the door to some amazing conversations.
Allowing your kids to search their gut and come up with what feels true to them is a rewarding process - and much easier than drilling things into them. It can be a surprising and sometimes frightening to see where they go. But allowing them to explore -- to question -- is excellent practice for developing forward thinking skills.
The key is to start small, meet them where they are. Most toddlers and preschoolers dwell in a world of magical realism.
One topic is ripe for an exercise in belief: Santa Claus.
“What do you think?” solves the Santa Conundrum, a topic of much debate in progressive parental circles.
The Pro-Santa camp asserts that forgoing St. Nick robs children of magic and the Anti-Santa group portends that participation is just lying and inherently wrong. I have come to rest in the Santa-if-that-rings-true-to-you camp.
No one wants to bearer of bad news. If we say, "No, there is no St. Nick, we buy all your gifts and put them out when you are asleep.", we’re telling the truth, but maybe too much truth. We’re taking away the child’s ability to believe. Not to mention crushing their dreams if they do believe.
But if a child says, "How can Santa get to all those houses in one night?", and I invent something about time travel, I’m working to extend a fantasy without allowing them the space to decide for themselves what is and is not believable.
What would happen if instead of telling kids what Santa does, we just said, "Well, what do you think?"
And then shut up.
Let our kids plunge through the depths of their brain to extract what feels true to them. Time travel or no travel. Their choice.
The trick to making, “What do you think?” work for you is to neither confirm nor deny.
Place no personal judgment on their theories. Instead, extend the conversation with questions like, “What makes you think that?” Doing this will urge them to consider their conclusions more deeply. A good phrase to pull out of your pocket is, “Oh, I see.” This is active listening. It shows you understand the points they are making without critique (no, you don't have to agree).
Encourage them to seek out information on the topic. Take Santa. Try looking at representations of similar mythical figures from other countries (St. Nicholas is a great place to start), including those who do not believe. It's educational and allows the child to challenge their own views without feeling judged.
When a child wants a straight answer it will be unmistakable.
They will not go down the road of “What do you think?” Instead, they will push forth repeating their direct questions. That's when we weigh in with ways in which we take part in these rituals without relieving them of their autonomy.
Take the Subtle Guidance approach, based on your traditions. You can set the scene for belief or nonbelief in your home, although you can’t make it root.
Keeping gifts out of site is one option. Putting gifts out early and focusing on other holiday traditions is another options. Both are ways to create space for your child to explore without direct adult influence.
Children need to flex their intuition and critically thinking muscles. “What do you think?” expands their ability to think for themselves.
Questions also provide a much-needed platform to teach children about respecting the belief systems of others.