Before I begin this post, I need to make one admission. I LOVE shapes. Weird, right? When I was given a high school assessment of my highest skills, spacial awareness was my highest ranking skill. (Which, however, seems to conflict with my inability to estimate things and propensity to maybe run into things.) (Cough.) This post is about using questions in parenting, but as I thought more and more about this, I kept returning to the shape that a question mark makes. Unlike a period - which can be used aggressively, such as with "bullet" points - a question mark has something potentially soft about it. Oddly, a question mark has a period in it. And I do think that some questions can be thrown at you "period first," by which I mean, in a hurtful, aggressive way. (Imagine the question like a baseball someone is chucking at you.) However, there's also another way to slide a question at someone. It's like a spoon, or a cradle, this funny little mark we make. It's like one side of an avocado or a pregnant belly. It's a ladle or a cup that you can drink from. In conclusion, I warned you. But for what it is worth, I invite you to consider this image with me. The potential of the question mark as slide, the question mark that someone else could be moved gently by.
Now on the matter at hand. Last night I was at my daughter's first first grade orientation. (Yip!) As we were leaving the school grounds, I heard a fellow new-to-the-school mother say to her (sad) child, "There's no reason to be sad." I had a response to it. Not because I think she was doing something bad. In fact, I have said something similar a time or two before. And when I was saying it, I was trying to lovingly accomplish something, as I imagine this mother was doing. I was trying to help my child to learn to prioritize things. I wanted, as I imagine this mother did, not to silence my child as much as to help her put things into perspective.
This being said, I increasing find myself uncomfortable with my own impulse to tell my daughter that something she is upset about is not important. I've found myself imagining someone telling me that something I was upset about wasn't worth being upset about. I imagine I would feel shame. Or maybe frustration. Or badness. That's not really what I want to create. BUT I do want to create within her an ability to mitigate her own negative feelings and prioritize which feelings to listen to and which ones to let pass. (I can only hope that someday I myself can practice finding this ability.)
My daughter is a sensitive little flower. A lovely, snuggly flower. A five-and-a-half-year old flower. But still. She is a SENSITIVE thing, even considering her age. She comes to it genetically. My mother says that when I was a toddler with pots on the floor around me, I wouldn't play with them because I wanted nothing to do with something I hadn't mastered. Since I couldn't get the lids on right the first time, I couldn't even bring myself to play with the things. My life-long tendency to not engage with things that upset me does my daughter no favors. I feel I am outing myself here as an emotional basket-case. I'm not sure that's the case, but I do think I feel things very strongly and have never really found a way to be a part of this society that allows for that fully.
I grew up with a profound ability to stuff things. Not because I thought what I was feeling was bad, necessarily, but because I knew that my mind could control my body. I was making choices that I thought were very good. And I've been very happy most of my life making choices that way - that is, not allowing my emotions to sway me very often or very much. So, it's no surprise to me that sometimes I find myself wanting my daughter to just STOP being upset. My tendency has always been to think that the ability to cognitively override emotion is superior. The problem is, of course, that I no longer really think that. When I want my daughter to stop crying, am I refusing to welcome her? Am I also demanding that she rely on cognitive faculties as her primary means of navigating the world? Am I communicating to her that she is not alright the way she is? (That to become adult is to become less emotional?)
In Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, Gottman's classic from the late 90s, he suggests 5 steps in coaching children's emotions: 1) Be aware of the child's emotion. 2) Recognize the emotion as a chance for intimacy and communication. 3) Listen emphatically and validate the emotion. 4) Help the child label emotions. 5) Set limits while helping the child to solve problems. In addition to these suggestions, he advocates that parents set aside their own agenda, avoid negative labeling, and being aware of gender issues. (And other things!) What I want to discuss is not in opposition to Gottman's work, but rather an extension out of it. I am assuming a foundational basis of empathetic parenting, which is increasingly the parental standard culturally. (At least far more than it was in the 90s.) Moreover, in contrast to Gottman there are increasing concerns about the negative affects of giving children TOO much attention. I want to honor both Gottman and the concerns of more contemporary thinkers who worry that children are being smothered or limited by too much attention. And my own experience of feeling that if I do anything, it's err on the side of empathy to the point of apology. This, I think, is something different than what Gottman talks about in terms of parents who feel emotionally out of control. The implication that I sense is that the goal IS to be in control of emotions. Thing is, I'm not totally convinced that that is how I want to live with emotions.
In light of this, I am putting out the suggestion of using questions - rather than statements - in response to children's emotions. I am attempting to think through how I have used these questions and how they might achieve my goal of being caring and empathetic, while also inviting my daughter into new ground where we don't just acknowledge her emotions and try to solve the problem she is having, but take her concerns and emotions more seriously. That is, we try to honor that her emotions might be helpful to both of us, might help us see something new. In other words, an approach that imagines parenting is not just about crafting children to be "good," but imagining that the daily work of engaging in emotions together is ontologically valuable - not just valuable in terms of superior parenting.
For a long time, I've worried that my daughter's sensitivity is my fault. Perhaps, I think, I've been too permissive. Perhaps I've allowed her to have what she wants too often and, consequently, she can't cope with not getting things she wants. (Yes, I acknowledge this is maybe too self-critical or controlling. Blast.) I have caught myself wondering if I should correct all my empathy with allowing a little more struggle without solving it with/for her. But, to be frank, that doesn't fully appeal to me. I neither want to ignore my daughter's emotional struggles, nor do I want to overly indulge them. This is no to suggest that Gottman's approach is about overly indulging feelings. I don't think it is. It is, rather, to suggest that some people like me can't simply "do" the steps he suggests without hitting pitfalls. Moreover, I want to parent in a way that shoots me to the depths of the realities of life. (I am not kidding.)
I think to be an ontological parent I need to take my daughter's emotions seriously and open up the possibility of my own mistakes. Whether I should or not, I find myself questioning my decisions constantly. It's a weakness and a strength. What I'm suggesting in "Socratic Parenting" to myself is a way to have an important guiding role that doesn't assume that I already have the right answer. In short, I'm trying to recognize that I am IN the situation with my daughter. I am not outside of it, and there are stakes in the situation for me. Gottman advocates releasing your parental agenda. I might suggest something more along the lines of being honest with yourself about your parental agenda and even being willing to be honest with your child about your agenda. This is probably hard to explain without a specific example. I'll get to one soon.
Enter THE QUESTION. Enter THE SOCRATES. I turn (a little) to Socrates because I believe questions can direct a child's vision, rather than impose a parent's vision onto their children. Moreover, I think this can allow both child and parent to work together. I believe that they could be a way that parents allow themselves to be authentically questioning the world around them alongside their children. (I.e. Opening up the question of WHY we are polite to others. Addressing WHY we prioritize our physical well-being over our temporary enjoyment.)
Socrates believed in the power of the question. "Wisdom begins with wonder," the old dog said. (Or is said to have said.) "I know that I know nothing," Socrates declared. He - like Augustine's si fallor sum (I'm mistaken therefore I am) - starts with fallibility. Despite the temptation to start as a part from a place of superiority, I am suggesting the possibility that parents may find great success if they start from a position of wonder and humility. Rather than being the person who already "knows" the right answer, or is simply guiding a child through how to behave properly, I'm suggesting there may be some merit to some humility. No, I don't always know why we do things. No, I don't always know what is best. But I am in this thing with you. And not only do I validate your feelings, but I'm interested in what they might have to offer. I'm not waiting for you to stop being unhappy. I'm listening to what your unhappiness might be telling us. (With the full possibility that it might simply be telling us that you, like everyone, has feelings of jealousy or selfishness.)
In the face of emotions, I think wonder is necessary. Emotions are a force bigger than I can reckon with, more like a thundering waterfall or a raging bull than any other force I know. When I imagine what I hope for my daughter, it is that she can wonder at her emotions instead of despise them. I hope that she can find a way to 1) listen to her emotions and, at the same time, 2) not be overpowered by them. I've started to wonder if the best way to accomplish this acceptance and response can happen best with the use of questions.
What I want to teach my daughter - and what I want to teach myself - is the ability to sit and be still (at least metaphorically) when I feel something. I want us both to know how to listen deeply when an interaction between my body and the world produces something. This of course is not to say that every time something goes wrong we have two hours to sort it out. Rather, this is to say that part of the ability to respond to emotions is the skill of knowing what can be dealt with in the immediate moment and what needs to be resolved later. (But to not forget to resolve and acknowledge those things! To not just try to pacify my child by validating her emotions without any intention of taking them seriously.)
The fundamental belief I have that informs this practice is one simply belief: Emotions are a gift. They are important. They are not a hassle. They are a guide, if we can only follow them. They are a wellspring, if only we can find a way to drink them in.
Let's get specific. I'm going to describe how I'm trying to do this. Two days ago, my daughter and I planned to go the park after we got home from school and the grocery store. While I was putting groceries away, that adorable thing I love was on the floor playing with our magnetic poetry, dividing up all the colors into neat rows. It was then that I realized that I hadn't reminded my daughter to clear her breakfast dishes that morning. (Whoops. I'm not a bad person, for the record.) So I asked her to go and get them. She was not impressed. Here is how our negotiation went.
E: *whining and sniffling a little*: I thought we were going to the park!
Me: We are babe. I'm just asking you to clear your breakfast dishes first.
(Here I imagine people with a little more gumption would just say: DO IT CHILD. And it would be done. For better or worse, I'm not that kind of person.)
E (now crying): I will miss playing at the park.
(Here Gottman might recommend mirroring feelings and helping the child to name their feelings. I have often done this, and do this in part, but I was trying an additional approach in using questions here.)
Me (getting down on my knees): Honey, it sounds like you're having some bad feelings. What are you feeling?
E: I'm feeling sad. I want to go to the park.
Me: What do you feelings make you want to do?
E: Go to the park right now before it is too late.
Me: You are afraid we're going to miss going to the park. Do you think that your feelings are telling you something important?
E: No. (Sigh.) I think it's more important to take care of the house. But, what about running and using my body? And being outside? Isn't that important?
Me: It is important. So important. I really want to do that. Do you think it will take such a long time getting your dishes from that table that we won't be able to do that important running and using your body?
E: No. (Sigh.)
Me: If you clear your dishes right now, we can do that important thing right away. I can't wait.
Okay, so I sound like a total cheeseball. (I am kind of a total cheeseball.) And, for the record, I'm using an example of something that worked. That is not always the case. I often blow it by being impatient, or by not really trusting the questions that I'm asking to help lead us to a shared conclusion. Still, I include this example because it touched me. I was reminded - and surprised! - by the fact that I was so quick to brush off the importance of my child's play time. She reminded me what was important in what she wanted to do. In the end, I enjoyed going and playing more, and I understood more of its value. My daughter gave me an answer I didn't expect. And I think it made us come closer to a solution that was life-giving, instead of one in which my daughter was forced to accept that I knew the right thing and was just waiting for her to accept it.
Disclaimer: I am not sharing this experience because I think I am a model parent. For the love, I am not. This, however, is the way I have been trying to understand balancing 1) enacting empathy 2) my feeling of responsibility to help guide my child 3) my perpetual inability to be right about all, any, or most things and 4) my fear of being overly indulgent about my daughter's feelings. This use of questions - at least for me, and at least right now - allows me to get at a more collaborative process, without undercutting the importance of what I myself know and what my daughter knows. I hope. Again, I'm a pretty flawed lady.