Thursday, December 16, 2010

Socratic Method in Parenting? Helping children develop good decision making.

Hello, readers.

I've had some thoughts mulling recently that I would like to share and about which I'd like some feedback.

It has been my experience that many parents under-utilize the power of questions in helping their child to make good decisions. What I mean by that is parents tend to do a lot more 'telling-their-child-how-to-behave' rather than helping them choose that behavior. Now, I don't know about you, but in general, doing something because I'm told to do it invites resistance on my part. In contrast, if I come to the conclusion of my own accord to behave a certain way, I am more likely to get to that behavior AND I'm more likely to have a better attitude about it.

In one of the parenting classes I teach, we talk about using short, directive statements that detail what action or behavior is desired. For instance, "I need you to pick up all the dirty clothes and put them in the clothes hamper" is more helpful to a kid than having a parent complain, "Goodness gracious! Your room is a pigsty! Why can't you keep things clean?!?" The former is non-blaming and contains direction whereas the latter is vague and invites comparison to a pig and recrimination as well . I understand that in many cases, a parent might say to me, concerning my example, "Jeff, we tried the first statement a hundred times before we got so frustrated that you are now hearing us say the second!" I get that. We have our days at the Emery household as well. However, the idea that I've bouncing around in my head is a complementary approach. I don't think it will or should replace positive, directive statements, but I think it has some helpful implications.

At some point, as parents, we become confident that our child(ren) know what needs to be done, or what behavior is expected, at any given point in time. For instance, I have confidence that my children know how to behave, but they lack the mental capacity to choose well when under stress (then again, we all do... on occasion).
So, if I have confidence that my child *knows* the right thing to do, then it doesn't make a whole lot of sense for me to tell her again, when I observe her choosing a poor behavior. What I mean to say is that the problem is not a lack of knowledge, it is an underdeveloped process of choosing, or decision making. So, as a parent, I need to learn a better way to help my children develop their decision making skills in a way that invites them to choose the better way.

Now, I need to digress for a moment to point out that it is possible to do the right thing the wrong way and thus muck it up. For instance, you can do things with sarcasm or with disdain or resentment that ruins the whole gesture. Let's say that I'm arguing with my wife and after a time, I can tell that neither of us is gaining any ground, so I apologize just to end the argument. "Fine, I'm sorry, okay? Whatever." See, now, I said the words... but my behavior, tone and attitude conveyed a different message. Not only was I not sorry when I said it, but I also left my partner feeling devalued as well.

So, as I explain the benefits of using questions to help develop good decision making in children, keep in mind that when our hearts are hurt... when we are embittered, angry or frustrated... this technique has the potential to backfire. Our frame of mind when using questions to help our children make good decisions needs to be free of trying to blame them or make them feel stupid for not seeing the 'obvious' answer. It needs to be a sincere effort to help them learn and grow and out of love for the individual. If your child can see your way of being toward them at that moment, it will help them be receptive to the teaching.

So, here is a conversation I had with my youngest daughter a while ago where I wanted her to choose the right thing instead of me forcing her to accept what I knew to be the right thing. Editorial comments are in parentheses.

Setup: Our heater was out over a weekend and we were using space heaters in the living room to keep warm. Eleanor was curled up on the couch and vocally complaining of being cold, so she asked if she could go change clothes. Amelia agreed and Ele left the room for a bit. When she returned, she was wearing a thin nightgown (pink and princess-y of course) which offered even less in the way of warmth than what she had been wearing. Amelia protested and told Ele to go put on long sleeves and pants. Ele threw a fit, claiming the nightgown was warmer. Am instructed Ele to go change and Ele just escalated the crying. I followed Ele to her room to help her process why she was misbehaving.

Me: Ele, why are you fussing?
Ele: (crying) Because I want to wear this dress and Mommy won't let me!
Me: I understand that you want to wear the nightgown, but you were complaining about being cold.
Ele: This is warm! Really!
Me: (pointing to the clothes in the floor next to her) I know mommy just wants to help you be warmer and I think that those clothes will do a better job.
Ele: No they won't! Please, just let me wear this!
Me: Ele, tell me, how is your behavior right now?
Ele: Bad....
Me: Well, Mommy has told you to change your clothes into pants and a long sleeve shirt. Are you doing what Mommy told you to do?
Ele: But, Daddy...
Me: Ele, answer me. Are you doing what Mommy told you to?
Ele: No...
Me: What is the right thing to do right now?
(This is the important question for her. Give her the opportunity to make the decision. I could just yell at her and make her do what she'd been told to do, but I think the investment in helping her make the decision for herself will pay off down the road)
Ele: I don't know!
Me: You don't know what the right thing to do is?
Ele: (pitifully) no...
Me: Okay, well, I have some stuff to do in the kitchen and I'll check back with you in a few minutes. In the meantime, why don't you sit on your bed and come up with something that might work for you right now.
(I left her for about five minutes and then came back)
Me: Ele, are you ready to talk? Did you think about the right thing to do?
Ele: Daddy, I really just want to wear my princess dress!
Me: I understand that, baby. I am sure that later, when it is bedtime, you can put that on. What do you need to wear right now?
Ele: (dithering) oh...those clothes (pointing at the jeans and shirt)... But I don't want to!
(At this point, the question was no longer about warmth, it was about obedience, so I made that overt)
Me: Eleanor, it seems like you are having a hard time being obedient. Being obedient means that even if you don't agree, you obey, or listen to, what Mommy and Daddy tell you to do. I understand what you want to do right now, but what is the right thing to do if you are going to be obedient?
Ele: I don't know!
Me: (getting frustrated) I just told you. You don't have to agree with Mommy, but you do need to obey her when she tells you to do something. Now, what is the right thing to do in order to be obedient?
Ele: (whining) ooohh...I just don't know.
Me: Well, I don't know either, baby. Why don't you take a few more minutes to think about it...
(I left for about five minutes more and then returned. Variations on this last part of the conversation occurred for the next 15 minutes, with breaks in between. Finally, Ele offered a compromise.)
Me: Well, did you figure out the right thing to do toward Mommy to show her that you are obedient?
Ele: How about if I put on this shirt, too? It is warm.
(This compromise was Ele trying to save face a little. It allowed her to comply with Amelia's directive, but to do it in her own way.)
Me: I think that would be fine. Now, when we are fussy at each other, what else do we need to do once we do what Mommy asked us to do?
Ele: I don't know what you mean.
Me: Well, you disobeyed Mommy and yelled and fussed at her. How do you need to make things right with her?
Ele: I need to tell her I'm sorry.
Me: That is a good start. After you tell her you are sorry, you need to behave in a helpful way so that we don't have go get fussy at each other again, k? I proud that you were able to think about how to be obedient and then you chose to do the right thing. (gives hugs)

Now, consider how this could have gone (and sometimes does!): Amelia and I both fuss/yell at Eleanor for not listening and command her to do as she is told. Ele would likely be resistant and defiant (how do you feel when when someone orders you around?), causing us to escalate things and threaten her with punishment if she doesn't comply. Then it moves from being a warmth issue or even an obedience issue and it becomes a power/control issue. The end result is that parents sometimes end up inviting the very behavior from their kids that they claim to dislike. The opposite is true as well. Sometimes kids tell me that they want their parents to stop yelling so much, but upon investigating their interactions, it becomes clear that the child's behavior invites their parents to yell.

So, why does questioning work better in the long run?
* It invites critical thinking because the child has to process the information, rather than having it force upon them by someone else's will.
* The very nature of it communicates that that person's opinion is valuable and that they are capable of making decisions.
* Done properly, it is empowering and promotes self-confidence.
* It models good development for the child, for later in life, so they can do it for their children
* Over time, it frees the parent from having to micro-manage their children.

I would appreciate feedback on this post. You can reply on my page, on my Facebook wall (once this is imported) or send a note to jde95f (at) gmail (dot) com.



Montie Samora said...

Great. Now tell me why my teenager doesn't think he has to obey any longer. Think it was so much easier when they were younger. I am really enjoying you blog. Keep them coming.

Leah said...

I'm really thinking on this. I just have to train myself to do. Also I find that if I help my girls find the answer themselves rather than tell them what to do - obedience becomes more natural later.For instance I'll ask Salem when she's being rude is she using the fruit of the spirit with what she just said? If she asks what I ask her what the fruit of the spirit are and she tells me and if she can't tell me how she used a fruit I ask her if she could rephrase her question/comment more gently using the fruit of the spirit. That helps a lot for us as well.

I also try to encourage them to be frustrated or even angry to get it out and then we discuss that while it's ok to be frustrated or angry - how could we have done things differently etc?

Now I am trying to apply the questions to my own life.

smith said...

The only way to succeed in law school and its unique Socratic method of teaching is to experience it – to invest countless hours with professors in a classroom environment.

Socratic method

Laurie Gray said...

Hi Jeff,
I googled Socratic Parenting and came across your post. I've been applying the Socratic Method to parenting since 2005 when I founded Socratic Parenting LLC as my writing, speaking and consulting company. Those who are interested in using the Socratic Method to cultivate competence, compassion and resilience in children can check out my website ( My book, "A Simple Guide to Socratic Parenting," is scheduled for release on May 1, 2014.