WORDS: Michael Parker, Author of Talk With Your Kids about Things That Matter
Many children can have a habit of coming up with the most forehead crunching questions, often at the most difficult times (cooking dinner, three quarters of the way through the last episode of ‘Line of Duty’ or when your judgey friends are visiting).
And I am not just talking ‘where did I come from’ or other such questions which do have a factual answer, awkward as they may be to explain. I am talking here about open-ended questions with no clear answer. Questions about friendship, loyalty, drugs, relationships with the opposite gender, how you spend your misspent youth etc.
These questions are actually good. They often mean that your kids are being curious, venturing further into abstraction and trying to flex their moral muscles. Indeed, if your kids aren’t asking these questions, there is a whole programme and set of things that you can do in order to promote them.
However, when some of these thorny issues come up, here’s a handy checklist of what you can do.
Ask return questions
Don’t think that your kids are merely coming to you for an answer. Use the question as an opportunity to explore and get deeper into the topic. In teaching there is an adage that says ‘be less of the sage on the stage and more of the guide on the side’. By asking questions, clarifying and pointing them in directions, kids will often come up with answers–which will then stick better because they generated them themselves.
Listen more than talk
If you are talking more than 50% of the time you are probably talking too much. Another old adage: ‘you have two ears and one mouth’.
Play ‘devil’s advocate’
Present a different point of view to theirs. This is not to be contrary, but to explore this other point of view. By saying that you are playing devil’s advocate as a thinking activity, it can take the sting out of disagreeing with your children. It is more likely to stay as an ‘intellectual’ discussion rather than becoming an emotional discussion.
Get them to take on the ‘mantle of the expert’.
Ask your kids to pretend that they are the government, or a health regulation board, or the school principal, or someone else who may have to decide on a thorny issue that they have raised. This is like ‘getting them to see another person’s perspective’ on steroids. It can add a heavy dose of realism to any discussion.
THE VALUE OF DISCUSSION
Ethics and values should be spoken about regularly in homes. Often they already are. Every time your child comes home with an example of something ‘unfair’ that happened at school, this is an opportunity to speak about ethics. When an issue comes up on the television or in films, this is an opportunity to speak about ethics.
- Expose values with conversation
I am not suggesting a return to the ‘good old days’ when kids were simply told how to behave and be respectful. Indeed, I am almost suggesting the reverse. I am suggesting that ethical issues are discussed and pulled apart by the whole family in conversation and that your children are a central part in these conversations. However, this is not permissive ‘values clarification’ either. Instead the important thing here is a belief that certain values are generally better – that courage is better than cowardice, that generosity is better than selfishness – and the rightness of these values is exposed by conversation and free thinking.
- Use situations and examples
For example, you can tell a child ‘You have to be tolerant of other people’ and he/she will hear ‘parent static’ and probably filter you out. But if you use situations and examples to discuss tolerance and guide them to their own conclusions your child will probably come to the view that tolerance is preferable to intolerance. The difference is that your child will have articulated the view themselves. The opinion will be his or hers and he or she will own it. So, in short, the better way to make a child tolerant is not to tell them, but to make him or her think it themselves. Of course, better than each of these is to get them to practise tolerance.
- Let them think it themselves
In having thoughtful, ethical discussions with your kids (instead of ramming ideas down their throat or letting them get away with any view at all) you are becoming a small part of the great liberal tradition that has been going on for hundreds of years. It is the same tradition that bought you democracy, freedom of speech, the emancipation of slaves and Monty Python. For centuries liberalism has been proud of valuing the received wisdom of the ages. It has been proud of producing in people the ability to think critically. And it has been proud of allowing people to form their own well-grounded views by combining these other two elements. It charts the middle way between authoritarianism and permissiveness. Liberalism is a rare and precious triumph of the human species which I think we are obliged to hand on to our children.
Talk with Your Kids about Things That Matter contains over 100 conversation starters for creating meaningful, thought-provoking discussions. From Plato to veganism, cancel culture to consent, and politics to basic kindness, these topics are set to engage, inspire, and even divide. Designed to have no real answers, but rather, instigate even more questions.
Talk With Your Kids about Things That Matter by Michael Parker is available at all good bookstores.