5. Openings: Remember when and how you did it

“Remember when….” is a good conversation starter. Think about your best friend or your life partner. With your life partner, wouldn’t it be good to reminisce about when…

– You first met

– You had your first date or your favorite date

– The last time you had a big laugh together

– The first big trip you did together

– The best gift you ever gave each other

– You discovered something later on that you never knew about each other

– You got through an upsetting or sorrowful time

– You solved a big problem by helping each other

– You organized that party or outing that worked out well

– We had great fun with the kids

This is also a good activity to do with your children every now and then. Remember when….

– We went on that special trip

– We went to that special restaurant

– We laughed so hard when we watched that movie

– We got lost

– We got so mad at each other, screamed and fought

– We saw X (a famous person)

– We went to that high-scoring game

– We were bored to tears and couldn’t decide on anything to do

– We celebrated X

This lesson explains that you don’t have to ask many questions and that opening, reflective questions are just fine, even if the conversation is only for ten-twenty seconds.

Here’s the basic theory behind this approach to coaching conversations. 

We know we want our children to become constructive citizens, independent and responsible, with a positive state of mind.

There are dozens of issues where conflicts and uncertainty can arise: religion, politics, career choices, school, money, sex, love, alcohol or drugs, behavior on social media, information and disinformation, peer pressure, personal taste, hobbies, habits, relationships with friends, family, crushes, physical health, psychological health, etc.

To deal with all these issues, sometimes even the youngest children need to think through their thoughts and clarify their attitudes, values, feelings, or behaviors. Confusion can lead to indifference, running from one thing to the next without direction, constant changes in values or conduct, giving in to peer pressure, seeking approval from destructive friends or groups, acting out, etc.

We know, deep down, that moralizing for our children rarely works. Sometimes it drives them away or in the opposite direction. Not engaging and just sitting back and hoping things will resolve themselves may work once in a while, but usually is not a good strategy. We can be good role models, but these days parents are hardly the only models children see in action.

What to do? Of course, no approach will solve everything, but short coaching conversations can help. 

When you engage in conversation and ask reflective questions, you are helping your child or young adult think about alternatives, advantages, and disadvantages as they examine their attitudes and behaviors. You are helping them clarify their options, decisions, and actions and thus helping them to clarify their thoughts.

The hypothesis is that if you often ask reflective clarifying questions, your son or daughter will, sooner or later, ask these questions of themselves and thus be a bit more prepared to deal with life’s conflicts, uncertainties, and choices. 

There are no guarantees, and you shouldn’t overdo it by being a question machine, but the basic premise is that a young person will benefit by engaging with adults who care and are curious. 

Let’s take a silly little example. You hear your child say it’s nice weather outside. You can ignore it, tell her it’s going to rain later in the day, disagree, or simply say agree and say, Yes, it’s nice. But you can also simply ask, what are you going to do today when the weather is so nice?

To answer that question, your son or daughter has to sort through alternatives, think about things she likes to do, and choose and verbalize an answer. That is a valuable process.

Examples of reflective questions useful in many situations:

– Where did you get that idea from?

– Have you been thinking about this for a long time?

– What are the alternatives?

– What are the advantages or disadvantages?

– What attracts you to this idea?

– Where did you get your information – or what information do you need to decide?

– What are the possible consequences or outcomes?

– Do you mean that….?

– Are you choosing this for yourself or because of others?

– Do you think other people should also make that choice (or think that way)?

– Tell me more about your thinking.

– Are you willing to stand up for your opinion or choice?

– Is this something you want to do more often?

– How are you going to put this into action?

– What do you need to do to get to the next step?

– Who has influenced your decision?

– Are you willing to invest even more time in this?

Please, please don’t ask all these questions at once. The last thing you want to do is be a nag or turn this into some kind of interrogation.

These types of questions sometimes will even turn into Eureka Moments because you ask others to think, examine, see patterns, and understand choices. That may lead to new thoughts and surprises, patterns, or simple confirmations of previous choices. 

You are increasing the likelihood of self-awareness and reflective choice-making. That’s pretty darn good if you ask me. 

One major warning. Don’t ask reflective questions with the purpose of having your children (or spouse) agree with you or do as you desire. The long-term goal is independent, critical, reflective thinking and action, not just coming to the same conclusion as the adults.

Be careful out there…. If you have decided in advance what your son or daughter should do or thinkthe questions won’t work. On the other hand, if you have decided to help your son or daughter think about the could, your relationship will become even more respectful and fruitful. 

Homework: Look at a choice you have made this week that has consequences for your personal life or work life. It could be about food or physical activity. It could have to do with a friend or family member. It could be a decision about priorities for your time at work or your relationship with your boss or a colleague. Write down three examples of reflective questions you could ask yourself about your decision. For example: What are the advantages or disadvantages of various decisions or what alternatives exist or what is needed for your next step?

Just maybe you will come up with an answer that will surprise you, confirm something for you, and provide a reason to rethink your decision. This process you are testing on yourself is valuable to do with your children every once in a while. In the long run, you are part of that adventure to raise thoughtful, self-aware children.