Keeping Your Child Safer by Tweaking Your Questions

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I read a blog post yesterday where the writer noticed that her child always had a great time at parties, sleepovers, even at school, and she started to wonder if she was getting the full story. I mean  – who has a great time all the time?!

child safety

Do you ever truly think about the questions you ask?

It got me thinking about the way we ask each other questions.

Like “How are you?” Do we mean it? Is it just a greeting? Even when we do mean it, it can be received as a greeting – the answer to which is usually “great thanks!” or “fine!”. Research tells us that we all lie – quite a lot – every day. And apparently the most common lie we tell is “I’m fine”. It’s not considered by social psychologists to be a ‘proper’ lie, but it can indeed be a dangerous one.

If your child says they are fine when they are not, you are missing important information, and they are getting into the habit of hiding their ‘not-fineness’.

How we ask children about their day matters

I’m guessing you’ve probably asked these pretty normal standard questions:

  • How was school?
  • How was the party?
  • Was it good?
  • Were you good?
  • Did you behave?
  • Did you do what you were told?
  • You feeling OK?
  • You OK to go back there?
  • Did you like Katie’s mom?
  • Was Johnnie nice to you?
  • Were you nice to Tom?
  • Did you guys play together?

These are good questions, but they are “closed” questions, and will likely yield a “yes” or “no” response. Importantly, they will more likely get a “yes” – especially from younger kids. (A mumbled “OK”s or “AS IF you care!” maybe from the older ones …). 

“Yes” is nice and positive and makes everyone looks good and happy. And most kids will think that’s what you want to hear. And they are right in a sense aren’t they? We all want to believe that everything is great and super groovy – like I said we lie about that stuff every day ourselves!

What if …

What if the child had a bad day and doesn’t want to upset you by telling you that they were bullied, threatened, abused.

What if they came across an older kid or an adult who warned them not to say anything?

What if they did do what they were told but you wouldn’t be happy about what they were told to do?

The same questions, just tweaked into ‘open’ inquiry:

How was school?  What happened in school today? 

How was the party? What happened at the party? Who was there? How old were they?

Was it good? What was the best bit? What wasn’t good about it?

Were you good? How were you treated there? 

Did you behave? How did you feel there? 

Did you do what you were told? What did X’s parents/father/mother/whatever talk to you about?

You feeling OK? How are you feeling after it?

You OK to go back there? What would it be like for you to go back there?

Did you like Katie’s mom? What’s Katie’s mom like?

Was Johnny nice to you? How was Johnny with you?

Were you nice to Tom? How did you and Tom get on?

Did you guys play together? What did you guys do together?

And finally:

Did you feel safe there? It’s OK to tell me if you didn’t.

Is there anything else you want to tell me good or bad about your day?

The benefits of tweaking from ‘closed’ to ‘open’ enquiry:

With these small tweaks we shift the focus from one word answers to a richer narrative with far more information – possibly highly entertaining information! A simple “yes ” can turn into a gross description of how treasures were found in a garbage bag and made into jewellery for the dog  – or for you!! Or it might lead you to learn that someone wanted to play mommy and daddy but it was to be a secret and they couldn’t tell the other mommy anyway cos she was out somewhere else so…

When we open up a conversation with open questioning it gets your child communicating. And crucially, it gets at information that might alert you to unsafe people or places.

These questions also show the child that we are not overly concerned with how “well” they performed. They show that we are not placing the responsibility for every encounter solely on the child, and we are not invested in only hearing the ‘good’ news. 

We are concerned about the overall experience and are willing to bear witness to and talk about any difficulties. We are concerned with how other people treated them and in doing so, we are showing them that we are placing value on their feelings.

Your child may not tell you everything I know, but I also know that this way of asking is more likely to get you the answers you’re looking for!

See you again next month and as always please do feel free to add or make further suggestions in the comment section!

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