Questions to Young Children

Parents, grandparents and even strangers often desire to connect with young children. Yet, some well-intentioned adults often err in the way they phrase their questions to children. Some seemingly factual or innocuous inquiries may actually hurt or even harm youngsters. How can adults speak to children in a helpful and bonding way, even when children misbehave?

Adults are instructed to ask before assuming culpability of another in any undesirable conduct. Morally, we also accept that it is unfair to assume another person’s motivation without confirming it first. Yet, this method is inappropriate when dealing with youngsters. Since children are at the mercy of parental approval for their emotional safety, disapproval is a survival threat. Yet, they have careless habits that may displease their parents.

Asking a small child “Did you hit your sister?” …climb on the couch with muddy shoes?” …draw on your brother’s homework?” is likely to result in a child’s denial due to fear of punishment. Even when our tone is as neutral as possible, the potential disapproval threatens the youngest of children.

The preferred method with young children is to carefully state, “I feel sad when your sister has a red mark on her arm. I think you do, too.”  Or, “A muddy couch is yucky to sit on.” Or, “Your brother is very upset about the lines on his homework. When you get upset with him, what else can you do to let him know how you feel?”  These statements impart compassion, reduce the child’s shame and model kindness while sparing the child’s esteem.

Dr. Lawrence Kutner of Harvard University states, “The most common reasons for lying, particularly among younger children, is a fear of punishment. Older school-age children will also lie to enhance their self-esteem and social status by bragging about knowing a celebrity. For older children, chronic lying is often a rebellion against restrictions. It is a way to challenge a parent’s authority. Preteens no longer feel they must tell their parents everything they do; they may respond with a lie to what they perceive as an intrusive question.”

Other factual inquiries such as, “What did you do in preschool today?” may seem like a natural question for connection but may evoke panic and may overwhelm the child. “Why can’t you get better grades? …score more goals in soccer? … have more friends?” may lead the child to admit failure or lack of talent that is shaming and inappropriate.

The overriding consideration in asking young children questions is to establish their comfort in knowing that you are supportive and care about them. Thus, open questions such as “Which do you like best, coloring or playing outside?” prevent the youngster from feeling shame, guilt, overwhelm or failure and are safe and emotionally empowering.

In questioning young children:

  •  Avoid adult communication skills that may lead to fear, shame or ineptness.
  • Structure the question to help the child feel competent, safe and valued in answering it.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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