Parenting Hack: The “Knowledge Question”

Anne Rulo Parenting Hack The Knowledge Question

I keep it pretty simple as a parent. I do my best to love and affirm my kids while keeping them fed and clothed. I make sure they get outside. We read books. Nothing special, but hopefully consistent enough to combat my less-than-stellar parenting moments. But, every once in a while, a unique little gem pops into our routine that turns out to be super helpful. That happened the other day, so I figured I would share.

Long before I had children, I loved learning about emotional intelligence. The majority of my professional work has been with adolescent young men and women, many of whom didn’t know how to identify and/or work through their feelings. Fast-forward to parenting and that commitment is reinforced. Little people need the safety to feel, identify and learn to cope with their big feelings to eventually become functional adult versions of themselves. And so, we spend a lot of time naming and validating their feelings, helping them along this road of emotional intelligence.

However, as my children have gotten older, I have started noticing that just naming and validating their emotions seemed to leave them floundering a bit. It seemed to be caused by not knowing how to ask about what upsets them. And that’s where the “knowledge question” was born.

What is the “knowledge question”? It’s basically an add-on response to emotional validation that helps when kids are worried and need information. It goes something like this:

“It sounds like you have a question.” (A reflection of their need for information) or,
“Would you like to ask a question?” “Is there something you’d like to ask me?”

It may sound simple but it’s been a game-changer. Let me give you a couple examples.

My oldest worries about natural disasters. We have researched the area to make sure our home is safe from floods and note we’ve never been directly hit by a tornado. Then, the other night he walked into the living room and asked, “Can you show me a map of the world?” When I asked why, he broke into tears, “I don’t want to die from a tsunami!”

As I sat on my couch (in Missouri) I internally rolled my eyes. But then, I remembered the knowledge question. “I see that scares you, buddy. Would you like to ask a question?” And the coolest thing happened. The gears started turning, the tears dried up, and the scared little boy stood and asked, “Can tsunamis get to our house?” “Nope. Tsunamis only happen near oceans. We don’t live near the ocean.” “Okay Mom, thanks.” And off to bed.

Part of the reason the knowledge question works is that it’s empowering. In addition to validating our children’s feelings, we give them the opportunity to be information gatherers. The ability to seek out resources and knowledge is a foundational skill-set for their success in the world. And, when we offer the knowledge question, we give them a safe place to practice that with us.

Here’s another example.

My youngest is into “fairness”. At breakfast, I handed her brother two gummy vitamins. As I turned to get hers she burst into tears, “But I wanted gummy bears too!” I wanted to say something harsh (“Chill out, I’m getting them”) but instead, offered the knowledge reflection, “It sounds like you have a question.” Big blue eyes and crocodile tears looked at me and said, “Mom, can I have vitamins too?” I was then able to remind her to ask questions, be patient and then we moved on without me shaming my child and with her problem-solving skills enhanced. She was given the chance to advocate for herself, rather than having me fix the problem for her.

So, if you think the knowledge question might be helpful for your kiddos, here’s a few thoughts:

  • It can take them a while to figure out how to ask a knowledge-seeking question. My four-year-old was initially frustrated, “I don’t know what the question is!” No worries. This offers you an opportunity to work through how to form an information-seeking question as well as explore what might be bothering them. In the tsunami example, I might say, “What is it you are worried about?” His answer is going to point me toward whether he is worried about dying by a tsunami in Missouri or worried about the uncle who lives near the ocean we are planning to visit. Kids think some wild stuff and we can’t always assume why they are worried about something. This way, you get more information, and then you can help them form what would have been an appropriate question afterward as practice.

  • If they are “too far gone” emotionally, they will not be able to form a question. The prefrontal cortex of our brain is the first to shut down in a panic and we need that part to have any sort of rational thought. If they can’t come up with anything because they are too upset, focus on deescalating and try again later.

  • They are not always going to like the answers we give them. However, no matter if they like it or not, remember to praise their problem-solving, resource/information-seeking efforts. If we actually lived near the ocean and needed to plan for a tsunami we would have just continued on our research journey. “Yes buddy, we could have a tsunami here but I am so proud of you for wanting to think through the options. What questions do you have about how we plan to be safe?” Or, if I had told my daughter “no” because she threw a huge fit about the vitamins I can still say, “I am so glad you asked me about having vitamins. What questions do you have to make sure you are able to get a gummy next time?”

Well, there you have it. Thanks for hanging with me. This change in my parenting language has been so helpful with my worrisome, tear-prone kiddos that I really wanted to pass it along. I truly hope it may be helpful for you in growing investigative, independent, resource-obtaining little humans. The same ones who will come to us someday and say, “I had a problem and I figured out what I needed to know, all on my own!”

Photo by Sai De Silva on Unsplash

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