Calling Into Question

“The answers won’t be there. Still we call.” — Christina Pugh, from “On Ghosts and the Overplus”

We are all familiar with the adage, “Ask a silly question, you’ll get a silly answer.” The questions that parents ask children are worth considering because the depth of the questions that we present to them correspond closely with the depth of self-awareness and understanding that will be engendered by those questions. Intelligence is most interesting, and most likely to develop, when it is tested. Presenting the right kind of question opens up new horizons for children and is often accompanied by their willingness to begin asking themselves the kinds of questions that promote their growth and self-regard. A good question is the struck match that can suddenly illuminate the teen’s invisible soul.  

The reality, though, is that many of the questions that we ask children tend to constrict rather than dilate the range of possible responses, leaving them, and us, less likely to find what we want to find. There is the revealing joke about the man who is on his hands and knees under a streetlamp at night, looking for his lost car keys. A passerby sees him struggling to find his keys and joins him on hands and knees as they collaboratively crawl about and scour the pavement. Finally, after searching for some time in vain, the helpful passerby asks, “Are you sure you dropped them near this streetlamp?” The man looks up and responds, “No, actually I believe I dropped them about 50 yards up the road.” Puzzled, the passerby inquires, “Then why are you looking here?” The reply: “Because the light’s better.”

In this context, much of what we ask children is unlikely to help them “locate the keys” to their self-awareness and motivation because our questions are actually inviting them into a misguided search for those keys — the light might be better where we invite them to look, but everyone disconsolately remains in the psychological dark.

Of course, questions in and of themselves do not necessarily promote growth — sometimes, in fact, they retard or curb development. “What is wrong with you?” or “Are you ever going to grow up?” or “Why won’t you just leave me alone?” or “What’s gotten into you?” — when delivered in the scornful tone that tends to accompany these kinds of questions — certainly aren’t likely to foster much in the way of maturation and change, and, on the contrary, often leave children feeling defensive, shamed or embarrassed, a trio of feelings that work directly against the natural desire that children have to imagine, initiate and explore.

Nevertheless, the process of composing and posing questions is the foundation for creating conversations that transform children’s lives, particularly when these kinds of queries are asked in an open-minded and genuine way.

Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of persistence and tone. I will often hear parents complain to me, “I asked him ‘Why do you get B’s and C’s when you’re smart enough to get A’s?’ and he always says, ‘Don’t worry, just back off, I’ll fix it.’, but of course he never does, it’s the same grades every report card.” Yet the reality is that this is an excellent question, one that is indeed worth pursuing — however, it will only be pursued if genuine curiosity and care on the part of the questioner are being conveyed, rather than impatience and agitation.

In particular, we want to attempt to help our teen “get the hang of himself,” and stir in him a relationship with the parts of himself that may be hidden, invisible, and/or in conflict. For example, in the situation just mentioned, it is unwise for the parent to automatically assume that the child believes that he is better off getting higher grades, as success is often accompanied by its own challenges and predicaments, ones that may be knottier and less familiar than those that result from failure. Recognizing this possibility can lead to questions that are more likely to get at the heart of the matter than those that begin with “Why don’t you…? or “Why won’t you…?”, such as:

“To what extent do you actually want to get higher grades? And if you do want to get higher grades, why do you want to do so, and what’s in it for you?”

“If you get higher grades, do you then believe that you’ll always be expected to get higher grades, that you’re ‘digging your own grave’ in some way and making things harder on yourself in the long run?”

“Do you worry that higher grades are more important to me than to you, and that if you get higher grades, you are doing it more for me than for you, that you’re somehow losing yourself in that process?”

“Are there other places in your life besides school where you may be holding yourself back from doing what you believe is your best? If so, why do you think that is?”

“Are there other places in your life besides school where you believe that you generally do what you believe is your best (socially, athletically, musically, etc.)? And if there are, how come you tend to do your best in that area but not in school?”

In other words, our ultimate goal is to encourage our children to adopt an inquisitive outlook regarding why they do what they do, not to discreetly put our thumb on the scales and blunt their minds with our predictable (and sometimes drearily determinate) solutions to and conclusions about their problems. With this in mind, the best questions that parents ask prompt children to tumble forth with a series of follow-up questions of themselves that ultimately help them to reflect thoughtfully about the most important issues in life, issues that only they can (and should) address. Again: the colloquy that your teen has with herself is usually going to be more enticing and important to her than the one that she has—or is forced to have—with you.

Some of these self-directed questions and dialogues are going to reside on the more personal level:

  • Who am I?
  • Who am I becoming?
  • What am I here for and how do I matter?
  • Why do I do what I do?
  • How did I arrive at this juncture in my life?
  • Am I truly loved and do I truly love others?
  • What about me makes me beloved?
  • What about others makes me love them?
  • What makes life good and how do I pursue this?
  • What should I do when I feel hopeless?
  • What gives my life purpose and significance?
  • Is there life after death? How do I make sense of my mortality?

Some of them are going to reside on the more global level:

  • Does the Universe have meaning and direction or is it guided by random forces?
  • Is there a divine presence and, if so, what does it mean to believe in God?
  • How should we treat one another?
  • Why do some individuals suffer so much more than others?
  • Why do injustice and oppression exist and how is it best for me to respond to them?
  • How should we treat our planet and its creatures?
  • How can we live in harmony with ourselves and our surroundings?

Either way, though, we must keep in mind that it is the nature of substantive human inquiry that not every question is answerable. As a patient of mine once grimly concluded during a difficult time, “Sometimes the moral of the story is that there is no moral to the story.” But from my perspective, while we cannot teach our children the meaning of their lives, we can certainly teach them that the meaning of life may best be determined by embarking on a diligent search for the meaning of life, starting with their own life. The act of reflecting upon who we are and why we are here will never offer up clear-cut answers, but it will invariably help us to make sense of our being in the world, finite as it is, and to live that finite life with dignity, purpose and artistry.  

Framing meaningful questions is our best way of nurturing that kind of life in our children. We would do well to recall the words of the rabbi who was challenged by his pupils with the question, “Why is it that you rabbis often put your teachings in the form of a question?”

His not unsurprising response? “So what’s wrong with a question?”

Dr. Brad Sachs is an Advisory Board Member of Challenge Success, and is a psychologist, educator, consultant, and best-selling author specializing in clinical work with children, adolescents, couples, and families. He is also the Founder and Director of The Father Center, a program designed to meet the needs of new, expectant, and experienced fathers.