What if You Didn't Always Answer your Child's Questions?

"Mom, what makes the car go?" she said.

In response, "Hmm... I wonder. What do you think?"

Some questions are an opportunity to encourage your child to put out some effort into thinking. There is often much to be gained from giving the question back to the child instead of giving them an answer.

Here are seven reasons you might decide to not answer the next question that comes your way.

You want your child to be a creative thinker and a problem solver.

Here is a conversation with a three-year-old. The child asked,

“How do you build your own house?”

I could start with a description of logging, wood milling, and an explanation of how to frame a house. Instead, I responded with “what do you think?” The child answered with another question:

“How do you build the roof?” I asked,” How would you do it?”

“With bare feet” she said. I responded, “So you think you would stick to the roof and not fall off if you had bare feet? “Yes,” she said, “And I would use a special knife if I got a splinter. I had a splinter from wood before.”

When handed the question back, the child narrowed in on a challenge of roofing (falling off of a pitched roof), came up with a solution (bare feet) and realized this posed a second problem (splinters) and came up with a solution for that (special knife, presumably a jackknife with tweezers.) At this point an older child joined the conversation and said,” I think you would wear sneakers or work boots on the roof so you wouldn’t slip off and so you wouldn’t get splinters in your feet.”

For the young child, engaging in imaginative problem solving is more important than finding a realistic answer. If you listen carefully to children of many ages as they work on answering their own questions, you will find that realism increases with age.

You want your child to develop independence.

When you hand a question back to a child and then engage him in a conversation, you help him learn to answer his own questions. You also help him move on to more challenging questions. The nature of independent thinking is asking and answering our own questions.

You want your child to learn that you will listen.

So, listen. Really listen. Don’t correct. Don’t praise. Let your child notice that you soak up what he or she has to say without judgment. Your openness encourages creativity. While the early childhood years can seem to pass slowly, one day you will blink and discover that your little one is twelve or thirteen and you will wonder how this happened so quickly. And you will hope that he or she will talk to you. If she has come to expect listening without judgment, you may be lucky enough to hear her deepest secrets and her greatest hopes.

You want your child to become a confident public speaker.

Handing a question back is a way to encourage thoughtful speaking, especially in a shy child. If your child gives you a blank stare, try to carefully nudge her into conversation. “I find that puzzling myself. Let’s both think about it for a bit and see what we can come up with.” Your encouragement to think and then explain will help your child learn to think, and speak, on her feet. The child who shares problem solving by sharing her thoughts with parents is practicing the skills needed at school for participating in class conversations.

You want your child to learn the art of conversation.

Researchers tell us that when children engage in dinnertime conversations their grades improve and their likelihood of drug use is reduced. I suspect that conversations at anytime of day will lead to similar outcomes. However, the ritual of the family dinner hour is a perfect environment for the emergence of meaningful questions. Make family dinner a priority.

You want to encourage your child to experience wonder.

Occasionally a question comes your way that is tinged with amazement. It is worth slowing down for these questions. Stop washing the dishes. Postpone bedtime. Take the time to be brought back to the wonder you experienced as a child.

You love listening to what your child has to say.

Cute, smart, compelling, creative, unexpected. You will answer thousands of questions posed by your child. But sometimes you will just smile and say, “What do you think?” Develop an ear for the questions that create an opening to wonder, problem solving or conversation. Hand these questions back and enjoy what comes next.

Written by Kim Allsup, Gardening Teacher at the Waldorf School of Cape Cod and author of the blog Growing Children and the Book, A Gift of Wonder, which includes examples of children working together to answer questions which is common in Waldorf classes