12 Questions Kids Need and Long to Hear ~ The Consent of Inquiry and How it Cultivates Self-esteem, Trust and Respect

12 Questions Kids Need and Long to Hear ~ The Consent of Inquiry and How it Cultivates Self-esteem, Trust and Respect

“Trust children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.” ~ John Holt


12 Questions (Scroll to the bottom for 6 follow-up questions)

  1. What do you want?
  2. What do you need?
  3. What do you feel / think?
  4. How do you feel (about that)?
  5. What does your heart / intuition / gut say?
  6. What feels right / true to you?
  7. What brings you joy?
  8. What’s your dream?
  9. What would feel like fun?
  10. What would you love to do?
  11. What matters to you?
  12. What do you hope for?
Jack’s story
“One major study of 700 preschool classrooms in 11 states found that only 15 percent showed evidence of effective interactions between teacher and child. Fifteen percent.” ~ The New Preschool Is Crushing Kids | Erika Christakis, The Atlantic

Jack was a disgruntled grade two student. He was unfocused, disruptive to other students around him, and the teacher didn’t know what to do about it.

To add to Jack’s burden, every day he walked home—the long walk of shame—with his “communication book” detailing, courtesy of his teacher, all that he needs to work on, a book he was to present to his parents each night. This only made Jack’s resentment build.

The teacher did what she thought was best to change the course of Jack’s behavior. The communication book was one such strategy. In the classroom, there were others. First, she had him sit on a bouncy yoga ball, hoping the movement would regulate his system. It did not. Surprisingly, they had a weighted mat in the classroom, and she suggested he put it on his lap. He did, but again, it didn’t calm, let alone, focus him. Also surprisingly, they had a treadmill in the room. The teacher suggested he get on it. He did, but nothing changed.

Exasperated, the teacher phoned the mother, Kate, to share her concern. “I’ve tried everything with Jack and nothing seems to be working. The only thing left I can think of to do is to take away his recess.” Kate, measured in her words, replied, “I don’t think that’s a good idea. But I trust you’ll figure it out.”

One day, out of desperation, the teacher did something quite radical: She asked Jack a question. Not just any question, but a much-needed one, a powerful one, one that would change the course of Jack’s life.

“What do you need when you get those (upset) feelings?”

Jack’s reply? “I want to go into the hallway and draw.”

The teacher had a choice in that moment: Either continue pushing her agenda, or listen to the child and follow his lead. She did the wise thing: She let him draw. She let him choose his own curriculum.

Three days later, Jack no longer needed his communication book. And by the end of the school year, he was voted most improved student.

Kate went on to tell me: “I am so thankful that this teacher really listened to my son and trusted that he knew what was best for him. It is so hard to have a child and release them to the world. I really just want people to see the amazing person that he is and for his journey to not be too rough. I am so thankful that this teacher let the real Jack shine during his time in her class.”

All because she asked one simple question. 

A society full of answers and bereft of questions
“In a research study published a few years ago, Twenge and her colleagues analyzed the results of many previous studies that used Rotter’s Scale with young people from 1960 through 2002. They found that over this period average scores shifted dramatically—for children aged 9 to 14 as well as for college students—away from the Internal (locus of control) toward the External end of the scale. In fact, the shift was so great that the average young person in 2002 was more External than were 80% of young people in the 1960s. The rise in Externality on Rotter’s scale over the 42-year period showed the same linear trend as did the rise in depression and anxiety.” ~ The Decline of Play and Rise in Children’s Mental Disorders | Peter Gray, Psychology Today  

“What do you want?” I ask my client.

She pauses… Gingerly, she replies, “I don’t know.”

“Why don’t you know?” I kindly respond, expecting to hear an answer I’ve heard countless times before from other clients.

“Because no one’s ever asked me that”, says the client who is now in her fifties. Five decades, and no one has asked her what is perhaps the most needed and obvious question to ask anyone.

We live in a society that praises the answer. Knowledge is extolled, but at the cost of asking the kinds of questions kids need and long to hear that lead them into their fertile hearts and minds. The rich garden of intrinsic knowing goes dry, despite running deeper than the ubiquitously lauded intellect.

It’s much simpler and quicker to just give someone an answer, isn’t it? To tell them what to do or think or believe? It takes much more skillfulness, however, to know what questions to ask and when. And it takes wisdom and humility to recognize that power lies not in the answer, but in the question.

But “knowledge is power” in this success-oriented, capitalistic world, where kids are graded and ranked to the hilt and parents and teachers pressure them to excel to the point of breakdown. It’s “power” because people are terrified of uncertainty. Fear engenders a need to be in control which is confused for authentic power. Hence the parents need to know that their kids are performing well, a fear-based control that kids cannot help but be impacted by.

With the fear-based-need-to-know culture, curiosity naturally suffers. For, to be genuinely curious, you must temporarily suspend knowing. Power must be given to the other—the internal locus of control, the power to know what’s true or right for oneself.

Blinded by fear and control, forgotten is the root of the word education which comes from the Latin educere, which means to draw out. Forgotten is that education begins in seeing every person, irrespective of their age, as being naturally creative and resourceful, full of wisdom, gifts and talents waiting to be born into this world. This, as opposed to empty vessels that need to be filled (controlled).

Equally forgotten is the fact that while a job comes from the external world, a purpose can only come from within. And tell me, do people find more joy and fulfilment from jobs or from fulfilling a purpose? And tell me again, what does the world need now, more than ever, in this time of crisis: More people doing jobs they dislike or fulfilling a purpose that contributes something meaningful to the world that can only come from their hearts?

It begins with a question, with inquiry, with some wise, attuned adult taking the risk to let go of their agenda, what they think a child should know or learn, to discover what is meaningful and important in their world. It begins with being willing, like Jack’s teacher, to suspend knowing, certainty, control, to grant power to the child.

When I ask my playshop participants how often, as children, they heard any of these twelve questions versus being told what to think, do, or believe, usually people say that, at least 90% of the time, it was the latter: Adults with an agenda, knowing what’s best. And for certain people, including myself, they don’t ever remember being asked a single question from my list of twelve.

Consider the consequences of this. Consider the consequences of a society that fails to inquire into the vast, abundant resourcefulness their youth; that fails to draw out what the world desperately needs from them. More jobs are filled, which makes the rich happier; while less people make meaningful, heart-felt contributions.

And so this is where we are now—a world governed by so much heartlessness brought to its knees.

So, what are we teaching kids?

We’re teaching them that we do not trust them—we do not trust them to know what is right for them, what feels good inside, what is intrinsically true. To no surprise, these kids grow up not trusting themselves because they’ve spent most of their life giving their power away to other people (external locus of control).

A daughter says Yes to her cajoling father who urges her to follow in his footsteps in the family law firm while dissuading her from pursuing her dream of being a singer. A son believes his mother who convinces him that there’s no future in being a dancer. Again, as John Holt alludes to, parents say this because they didn’t have parents, let alone a culture, who believed in them in the way they needed.

This has huge ramifications not only on kids’ mental health (rising rates of anxiety and depression, as the aforementioned research noted), but also on their ability to navigate through relationships, work environments, health challenges, and more. It is difficult for them to know what is true, best, feels right for them. They are more inclined to discount their heart’s knowing. (We can understand more clearly why few people trust their intuition.) And because they need approval, safety and love from mommy and daddy, they will in their adult relationships continue to sacrifice authenticity for the attachment. They will give up what is true for them to please and hopefully get pleasing attention.

“People have two needs: Attachment and authenticity. When authenticity threatens attachment, attachment trumps authenticity.” ~ Dr. Gabor MateClick To Tweet

Growing up, they are more likely to say Yes to people and situations that in no way serve them. For instance, they may stay longer in an abusive relationship or a toxic job situation because they are unable to feel / know that what is happening is not good for them. That it isn’t right. They’ve spent their life externally oriented, following rules and pleasing others, and now have a hard time trusting, let alone acting upon, their feelings and inner No.

Have you ever wondered why so many people have a hard time saying No?

Simply put, without kids knowing their inner Yes, how can they grow up knowing their No? Without kids knowing their inner No, how can they grow up knowing their Yes?

We are speaking of consent
“The secret in education lies in respecting the student.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

We have come to a place in the Euro-western world where we are finally valuing consent. The Me-Too movement is but one example of many that has forced us to be more sensitive to the needs of others and to be aware of whether choice is respected in interactions.

Within the old model of teaching and parenting, consent sparsely existed. (We can even look to traditional wedding vows where the wife was to “obey”.) The adult was the smart one, the keeper of power and knowledge, especially men—the head of the household, the priest, etc. They were in charge and kids were to listen. And if children didn’t obey, they would receive various forms of punishment, sometimes physical abuse, such as caning. Their will was broken. A far, far cry from the consent increasing numbers are crying out for. That old school, unilateral, dogmatic, didactic, abusive approach to child rearing is completely outdated and has caused more harm than we realize or are willing to admit.

I recognize that sometimes kids, and of course adults, have to do things they don’t want to do. I do not want to sound overly idealistic here. However, there is a huge amount of room for us to grow into bringing a consent-based model to how we relate to children. Remember, in workplace cultures (such as the coach-approach movement) and, yes, even education systems (self-directed / project-based learning) we are trending in that direction. Consent is increasingly becoming the norm. There’s a reason for this: We’re waking up; it’s the necessary maturation of our times.

Education must follow suit more radically. It must practice respectful consent through educere.

Despite some positive shifts, as a whole, the current education model does not invite consent. This is evident based on the very fact that, in most communities, public education is mandatory. More so, the standardized model itself, in the way it is taught, does not allow for children to have free choice in what and how they learn. Math is mandatory despite the fact that it bores most kids to death and they are likely to never use the majority of what’s taught (especially when we consider accessibility to technology, like spreadsheets).

Simply put, our Euro-western education system is coercive. It was not designed to foster creativity, but rather compliance and conformity. (Creativity is, in fact, a threat to it.) The standardization alone goes against the unique possibilities and needs immanent in each growing child. Remember, it was the self-initiated and uniquely inspired “curriculum” of drawing, not compliance, that turned Jack’s well-being around. Only he knew what was best.

Again, the consequences? Consent is needed for kids to grow up knowing their inner Yes and No so they can know their boundaries and thus respect the boundaries of others—what feels right, what doesn’t, while being attuned to the right and wrong of others. If consent is missing at a young age, not only do we turn children away from their internal locus of control, but we also teach them that it’s okay to disrespect other people’s right to know their edges, what feels right for them. Kids are then more likely to desensitize to the needs of others; to cross boundaries and inflict various degrees of power violations, not only onto people, but onto all of Mother Nature.

The current education model, along with parental (and institutional, such as religion) patterns of control and pressure, perpetuate the “power wounds” that are endemic to Euro-western culture. “Power wounds”, meaning people who have been been powered over through some form of emotional or physical manipulation or violence. Colonialism, missionaries, residential schools, religious control, are but a few examples of what our current socio, economic and political systems have their roots in. We forget this.

Powering over has indeed long been “normal”. It’s still inescapably rife in our communities. But the trend is towards waking up. Recently, we’ve seen professional hockey coaches at the highest level be fired for their violent, coercive actions toward players. Certain universities have now banned the use of traditional hazing practices. Parents are spanking their kids less than ever before. Women are rising up to bullying, violent men. The harm of “normal” is being questioned and turned on its head.

Back to coercive education, it’s natural for kids to struggle to fit into this “normal” archaic, model; to enjoy their schoolwork, enjoy learning and thrive in this environment. When we listen closely to our hearts, this is to be expected, is it not? Yet, kids are made to feel wrong by teachers and parents, or shamed by their peers, for not being smart enough, for not showing enough drive or interest. This causes tremendous amounts of anxiety, much of which is either consciously dismissed or unconsciously ignored. Missed is the fact that these struggling kids may not be poor students, but rather kids who have not consented to what is being forced upon them. That, rightly so, they have not said a clear inner Yes.

They know it doesn’t feel right, but few are listening.

The radical choice to ask
“Teaching is not about answering questions but about raising questions – opening doors for them in places that they could not imagine.” ~ Yawar Baig

The radical choice for parents and teachers alike is to seek consent by asking questions, just like Jack’s teacher did. The choice to ask invites adults to do something that most have a very hard time doing: letting go of control, while giving control back to the child. To give them the space, time and permission to choose what feels right for them.

Kids who experience this are likely to trust adults more, to feel safer to share openly and vulnerability with their caregivers. Adults often complain that kids do not open up to them, that they are quiet and mopey and complaining. Yet, these adults do not see the role they have played in shutting kids down through their incessant need to tell, advise, admonish, condemn, judge and fix.

In my experience of talking to youth, the thing they hate most is adults telling them what to do, think, and believe. What they long for is an adult who actually cares enough to ask meaningful questions that touch not just their thinking mind, but they’re feeling, knowing hearts. Questions that engage the dreamer in them, the risk taker, the one that knows without knowing how it knows. They long for a mature, present adult that touches that precious spark deep down inside that holds the seed of a potential they are here to birth.

'Children are not things to be molded, but are people to be unfolded.' ~ Jess LairClick To Tweet

Kids need adults who patiently trust their unfolding, the natural timeliness of how their life proceeds. They want adults who create space for uncertainty and adventure without needing them to “apply themselves” to a specific, practical, “secure”, “realistic” path.

“Son, why would you want to travel / be a musician when you could get a nice, respectable job at the financial dealer as an administrator?”

Versus, “Son, where would you like to travel?… What would you love to see there?”

Or… “Son, what would being a musician mean to you?”

Followed by, “Son, I trust you. I believe in you. You know what to do. And if you need anything, anything at all, I’m here for you.”

How often did you hear that growing up? What would it have meant to you if the key adults in your life related to you in this way? How might it have changed the course of your life? And if more adults did this, how could it change the course of humanity?

For these reasons and more, I offer you these twelve questions to explore not just with your kids, but with yourself. You’ll find that as you explore and, more importantly, live these questions, you’ll be more inclined, naturally, to ask them to kids and adults. Deeper than rationale, you’ll know their importance on the level of felt-sense because the answers will have bubbled up from your soul and been made real in your life.

Questions are that powerful, as you can see from Jack’s experience. One question can change the course of someone’s life.

There’s a saying that if a ship changes its compass direction by only 2 degrees it will reach a brand-new continent. One question can do that for someone’s life.

Imagine what two can do…

Again, the 12 questions, followed by 6 follow-up questions:
  1. What do you want?
  2. What do you need?
  3. What do you feel / think?
  4. How do you feel (about that)?
  5. What does your heart / intuition / gut say?
  6. What feels right / true to you?
  7. What brings you joy?
  8. What’s your dream?
  9. What would feel like fun?
  10. What would you love to do?
  11. What matters to you?
  12. What do you hope for?

 

  1. What’s important to you about that?
  2. What would that give you?
  3. What’s your favorite thing about that?
  4. What would it feel / be like (to experience / have that)?
  5. What’s meaningful about that for you? / What would that mean to you?
  6. What are your options?

*                   *                   *

Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults

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3 Comments

  1. Another wonderful article, Vince. I love when the different things I have been studying, reading and drawn to in life connect so well with each other! Conscious Discipline, your articles, and Richard Rohr’s writings all are sharing so many of the same ideas, questions and concerns. I love to play and always encouraged the children I was with as a teacher to play, and to choose whether to take part or not. Some of the other teachers expressed worry that these kids would “never learn to……”. I knew that if that skill, task etc was something that would be purposeful in their lives, they would be able to learn it without a problem.
    I really do make sure that I ask kids if they want to participate when I am interacting with them as a clown, also. I want them to have some control and power in their lives that are so often adult directed. Thanks for your thoughts – I have lots to ponder – especially those questions!!

    • Beautifully written, Denise. Those kids were very fortunate to have you as their teacher and guide. Enjoy the questions, there are many more!

  2. Pingback: A Love Whose Time Has Come ~ Healing the Disembodied Human and Our Ravaged Planet - Vince Gowmon

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