It’s often difficult to get answers from teenagers, especially if you happen to be the parent of said teenager. As our kids go through the necessary process of developing their independence, they often stop sharing as much of themselves as we’d like.
My twins haven’t yet hit 13 and already their most common response to a mildly probing question is “I don’t know”—which, in comparison with the look of death I get in return for some of my queries, is starting to seem like a win.
We want our kids to become mature, independent, and capable young people, but we also want to know how they are doing in the process, what they’re feeling, what’s going on in their lives and minds, especially when they are away from home.
Early in my teaching career, and long before I became a parent, I realized that what I got from the students in my English classes was only as good as the questions I asked.
Over the past 20 years, I’ve seen again and again how a good question can not only evince a rich response from students, but can also build trust, model values, and help kids create meaning where they need it most. I might not get answers at first, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t thinking going on, and that we’re not creating connection.
As a parent I tend to forget what I’ve learned as a teacher. In my desperation for information, I ask my kids questions focused on exactly what I want to know, rather than asking them questions that will invite them to reflect, and in sharing that reflection, help me understand them better.
There are good reasons for that, of course. Our job as parents involves a lot of making sure our kids are doing what they are supposed to be doing. So the questions we routinely ask usually imply a kind of pressure to meet expectations... How are you doing in math? (Well, I hope.) What does your room look like these days? (As neat as you agreed to keep it?) Are you taking advantage of all Thacher has to offer? (Are you making the most of this?)
When students catch a whiff of these directive questions it's no wonder they turn out to be conversation stoppers. The beauty of boarding school is that much of the work of keeping students on task has been assumed by their teachers and mentors, leaving families free to explore the great open-ended questions together, the questions that create connection, the questions that help our students give shape to their emerging identities and values, and the questions that give us, as parents, the opportunity to see that process unfolding before our eyes.
What if instead of asking how things are going in math class, we asked “What are you learning about yourself?” Or “What people or situations have caused you to think about something differently?” Or “What challenges are your friends facing?”
Even if the answer is still “I don’t know,” we will have planted a seed of reflection; we will have let our kids know that we’re interested in what they’re thinking, in who they’re becoming, and in how they’re engaging with the world.