A hot-tempered child is one of the strongest and most stubborn forces on planet Earth. When I try to force authority or reason with my young son, the result is almost always the opposite of what I’d hoped. Although I've done much research about persuasion, I've found the hardest place to implement it is in my own parenting.
When it feels like we're hitting a wall as parents, perhaps it's time we rethink our approach to motivating our kids.
Asking kids questions is always an interesting exercise – their answers so often catch us off guard with wit or sweetness. When it comes to children, asking good questions doesn’t only lead to surprising answers but can also signify changes in behavior we wouldn’t otherwise expect from them.
Below, three main reasons why questions are so key for the persuasion process as parents:
A good question always leads to a response, whether it's vocalized or internalized. The reality is our kids are more likely to believe what they tell themselves than what they are told. Asking questions that help them arrive at an answer that emphasizes your case can make all the difference—even if they only answer the question in their head.
Asking questions can be a great way to overcome the instinctive resistance we often get from our kids in response to us. For teenagers, resistance is often a knee-jerk reaction to us rather than a genuine opposition to what we are saying.
For this reason, prefacing our requests or suggestions with questions that activate a positive expectation is highly effective. For example, if you want to get your teenager to feel included, invite them to offer their ideas in approaching the situation. By genuinely asking for input, we grant our kids the freedom and autonomy they crave.
Often conflict with our kids is a result of mere misunderstanding. They misread a reasonable request and dig their heels in, and we are left wondering what caused the reaction. By asking questions that allow our children to share their concerns and objections, the guesswork on our part gets eliminated.
Questions are a powerful way to address objections that result from deeply unconscious expectations. For instance, if your child is complaining that the screen-time rule is unfair, or the timeout is unjustified, try asking what alternative rule or response would seem reasonable or appropriate.
When they begin to pin down what their expectations actually are, they begin to recognize their preconceptions were not realistic or they didn’t have any firm expectations, realizing what has been proposed is indeed reasonable.
As parents, we all know the reaction we will get in response to: “Because I said so.” Whether your child goes off in a huff, grits their jaw in defiance or collapses in a fit of tears, demanding compliance doesn’t inspire the kind of willingness we would like to see in our children.
While directly stating what you want from your child tends to trigger resistance, questions are a highly effective way of guiding their choices without stripping them of their independence.
For example, rather than dictating the time you want your teenager to be home, asking “What time do you think you’ll be home tonight?” is far more likely to result in the outcome you’re hoping for. Since the time was offered by the child rather than specified by the parent, they are far more likely to stick to it.
A key technique, especially for younger children is to use “choice questions.” Instead of simply telling them to put down the iPad, ask them whether they would prefer to play an outside game or read a book.
The reason these questions are so effective is that they provide the child with a sense of choice but within the boundaries set by the parent.
One thing to keep in mind as parents is that we shouldn’t be discouraged by defiance. What I've noticed in my psychological research is an increase in resistance can actually be a good sign. When a child begins making excuses in response to our suggestions, it can often indicate that change is being considered. Similarly, stubborn silence can be a sign that reflection is occurring.
When met with these reactions, don’t rush to fill the silence or push your child toward your conclusion. Instead, opt for gentle nudges and follow-up questions like, "If you could make that problem magically disappear, then why would do it?"
Given our children's strong desire for freedom and autonomy, they respond far better to our questions than they do to our instructions.
When we engage this way, we invite them to see things differently or change their behavior according to their own reasons and decisions. Not only does this increase the likelihood that they will act in our favor, but it empowers them to become the kind of people we hope they will become.
Michael McQueen has spent the past two decades helping organizations and leaders win the battle for relevance. From Fortune 500 brands to government agencies and not-for-profits, Michael specializes in helping clients navigate uncertainty and stay one step ahead of change.
The bestselling author of ten books, his latest is Mindstuck: Mastering the Art of Changing Minds, a guide for persuading even the most stubborn people in your world. Having shared the stage with the likes of Bill Gates, Dr. John C. Maxwell, and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Michael is a familiar face on the international conference circuit as well. Michael has spoken to hundreds of thousands of people across five continents since 2004 and is known for his high-impact, research-rich, and entertaining conference presentations.
Having formerly been named Australia’s Keynote Speaker of the Year, Michael has been inducted into the Professional Speakers Hall of Fame. He and his family live in Sydney, Australia.
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