There are two kind of questions to ask your child, if I generalize, and both will likely be familiar to you, though the impact on your relationship might be less obvious.
There are closed-ended questions and open-ended questions.
An example of a closed question might be, ‘was dinner tasty?’, or ‘did you have a good day at school?’.
When we ask a question this way, we’re expressing our curiosity, but we’re not leaving our child a lot of ways to lean into their imagination, vocabulary, eloquence, creativity and conversational skills.
A closed question makes it harder to for us to know our child better.
A closed question is rethorical too (‘we’re having fun, aren’t we?’). And whether or not the rhetorhical aspect is apparent, it leaves very little room for any other response than ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
If we ask our child, ‘did you like the food?’, they will likely say yes. Either because they want us off their back, or because they’re guessing what response we’re most likely to want to hear.
The closed question is functional, briefly asked, briefly answered. It gets the job done. It’s faster. It’s sometimes necessary. Even useful. And for many of us it’s our habitual way of asking questions.
If we instead make the effort to ask open-ended questions like ‘how was school?’, or ‘how was the food?’, or ‘what did you like about the concert?’, then all of a sudden our child will have to work harder to respond. It might take some time, it might take some practice, but with time and practice, they will begin to respond more fully to our curiosities.
In the process they discover something about who they are, what they value, and how they are different and similar to us and others. They deepen their understanding of their passions, fears, wants and excitements.
They also learn that these differences are natural, necessary and vital to the family. They learn that they might see the world in their own way, that it’s sometimes different from how mom or dad sees it, and that there is room enough in the household for all views.
Our willingness to engage our child with open questions supports their ability to develop a facility with language.
We can ask these open questions early on in our child’s life. Of course how we phrase our question, and the response we get, will depend on how old our child is and who he or she is. Some of us are not naturally articulate or verbose or linguistically expressive, and each child has their own personal expressive gifts.
But whoever your child is, you will notice a difference in their response to closed or open questions, and a difference in what it asks of you, the listener, too.
Questions that affect our relationship
Open-ended questions are the basis for rich and rewarding conversations that build a rapport based on mutual trust. When we ask an open-ended question, we’re expressing a palpable interest in our child. They sense that we want to get to know them, that we care, that their view matters to us.
When we phrase our curiosity in this way, we encourage our child to dig a bit deeper, to reach for creativity, and to build the courage needed to express their unique views, troubles and understandings of life. There is no right or wrong answer to an open-ended question.
When we listen respectfully to what their story, responding with compassion, curiosity and perhaps another question, we find ourselves lovingly engaged with a human being whose life and perceptions and experiences are both familiar and unfamiliar to us.
As your child works to express his or her thoughts and feelings in response to your patient listening, you discover something new about your child, and something new or unspoken about yourself too.
Our willingness to ask open questions (and to set aside the time to hear the full response), puts us as parents in a place of curiosity, wonder and attention. There is much less dictation in an open question. It’s full with our desire to approach the ultimate mystery of our child.
Some ways for you to practice
You might spend the next week or two paying attention to how you ask your child a question. Notice how your child responds when you ask a closed question. What happens to the conversation? What are you learning about your child?
Then spend some time posing open questions on daily ocurrances. How is your child’s response different? What happens to your relationship with your child?
You will likely find there’s a place and a time for either kind of question. Sometimes you naturally just want a quick answer.
And sometimes you have the presence and focus to listen to their full response, and feel the pleasure of learning something new and unexpected about how your child views the world.