When my son was 11 or 12, we noticed some changes. Rather than the goofy, upbeat kid he’d always been, he seemed more sullen and self-critical. I chalked it up to puberty and chided him about being grumpy. Later, I was surprised to discover that some kids had been picking on him for months. It turns out the change in demeanor was a result of being regularly made fun of by the people I thought were his friends. I made a series of bad assumptions that could’ve easily been corrected if I had only asked a few good parenting questions.
Voltaire once said, “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” I love that. And I think it’s true. Questions acknowledge that we probably don’t know all we need to know. They help us to approach issues as learners rather than as advice givers. Because of this, parenting questions are far superior to advice. And I’d love to offer you what I believe are 5 critical questions to ask about your school-aged children.
1. Who are they spending time with?
The top influences in your kids’ lives are the people who surround them. Do you know who they spend time with? What are their friends like? How about their teammates? Have you ever had a conversation with their coach? Learning who’s in your child’s life will help you understand how she is being influenced. In some cases, this may require you to intervene and remove her from a toxic situation. Or it may simply help you learn how to coach your child to engage well with the specific set of relationships around her.The top influences in your kids’ lives are the people who surround them.
2. What are they doing online?
According to a 2019 study by Common Sense Media, kids ages 8 through 12 spend an average of five and a half hours per day on screens. Older kids, ages 13 through 18, are on screens over seven and a half hours per day. That’s a lot of screen time. Much of it is online and particularly social media. What sites do your kids visit? Do they have social media? Can strangers see their social media profiles and interact with them, or are their profiles private? Asking good parenting questions about screen time is critical. Your kids may be making decisions that you are clueless about (such as allowing their pictures to reveal their location) that at best are unwise and at worst are dangerous. But you won’t know if you don’t ask.
3. When do they have my undivided attention?
Our smartphones are constantly vibrating with notifications telling us the boss is texting with a work question, we just got another email about that project, or our team just scored a touchdown. These devices demand our attention. Unfortunately, that means our attention is often divided between the device screaming at us from our pockets and our kids (who may also be screaming at us but differently). When was the last time you set the phone down, turned the TV off, and gave them your undivided attention? What opportunities for connection might present themselves if you are attentive rather than distracted? Asking questions like these can help you resist technology’s pull toward distracted parenting.
4. Where are they influenced by other adults?
The nonprofit research organization Child Trends has studied correlations between children flourishing and the number and quality of their adult relationships. Unsurprisingly, children with healthy “mentor-like” relationships with adults outside their family are far less likely to have behavioral health issues. They are also much more likely to talk to their parents about difficult things. Where are there opportunities for your child for healthy relationships with other adults? And how are you helping encourage them?
5. Why are they participating in the activities they’re in?
If you’re like most families with young kids, you’re busy. You’re likely running kids to soccer practice or dance recitals or a friend’s house. This isn’t all bad, but before we know it, we can get overwhelmed with it all (and so can our children). Have you ever stopped to ask why they are participating in the activities they’re in? Do they need to play three sports in a season? How critical is it that they have dance five nights a week? Where is the space they need to connect with you? When do they have downtime? We don’t often feel able to ask these parenting questions, but they are incredibly important. Your children’s schedule is your responsibility.
Sound off: What other critical parenting questions should we be asking?
Huddle Up Question
Huddle up with your kids and ask, “Who are the three people outside our family with whom you spend the most time?”