Just this week, three dads have said something like this to me, “I want to get my teen to talk with me, but he just won’t.” Is the issue with the withdrawn child? Or, is the issue more with the parent’s approach in how they talk with their children?
My observation: most parents do more telling than asking. Early on, this is effective. As our kids mature, we need to shift gears. When we do, I think we accelerate open dialogue with our kids.
One of my favorite parenting books is Shepherding a Child’s Heart, by Tedd Tripp. In this book, Mr. Tripp uses the term, “rich entreaty” to describe an effective parent’s posture. To summarize: if we ask boring questions (“How was school today?”), then, we get boring answers (“Fine.”). Rich entreaty = asking more compelling questions.
Stepping back, let’s consider three gears we shift between with our kids. All are necessary, but sometimes we get stuck in one for too long:
- We’re the TELLER. Stop hitting your sister. Clean up your room. Be home by eleven.
- The BORING ASKER. Where’s mom? What time’s practice? Did you finish your homework?
- The COMPELLING ASKER. Let’s unpack this one.
I realize there are times for each posture above. Sometimes, we just gotta know if there’s more peanut butter in the pantry. However, guy who wants to be on the road to being an engaged father isn’t trying to locate household items. He wants more. Yet, he’s most likely stuck in first or second gear.
This third gear – becoming a compelling asker – is a potent parenting weapon, for several reasons:
- When we’re asking, we’re steering. We control the conversation.
- We’re asking compelling questions, we’re requiring thought. We are tapping into more areas of their brain.
- We’re asking compelling questions, we can “leave” resolutions with our kids. This forces them to make moral choices and set priorities. “Judgmental and selfish? Is that the kind of relationship you want with your brother in five years?”
This leads us to the two main reasons your teens won’t talk to you:
- You never ask questions. You’re stuck in first gear. You “tell” all the time and still treat them like a child, even as they grow into young adulthood.
- You don’t listen to their answers even when you do ask and you try hitting second or third gear, but, as soon as they answer, you downshift and begin lecturing. And, it’s not just about asking “open-ended” questions. “How was school today?” is open-ended, but not stimulating.
A simple example
Dad: “Son, why did you stay out twenty minutes past curfew?”
Son: “Sorry dad. I was having fun and lost track of time.”
Now, we choose. Do we snap back with, “Well, you won’t have to worry about losing track of time any more because you’re grounded!” That might be appropriate, especially if this is a pattern or you’re getting some attitude.
But, assuming this is a first offense, what if you went with, “Hmm. OK. How do you plan to keep this from becoming a pattern in the future?”
Bam! Who’s on the hot seat now?!
By asking your child a compelling question – forcing them to think, decide, and judge – you’re paying them a compliment (“I think you’re smart enough to resolve this.”); and, you’re putting them in the driver’s seat, preparing them for tougher choices on down the road.
Want your kids to open up? Shift into third gear. Do less telling and more asking.