“Try saying ‘I wonder if …’”

Part of an occasional series about phrases that this therapist finds himself repeating, often.

As a clinician in private practice, one of the phrases that I hear myself repeating often is “Try saying this to them: ‘I wonder if…’.” This suggestion often emerges in a discussion with a parent about guiding and not directing their child, ensuring that your child has the option to make choices for themselves versus you making the choice for them. This phrase is about creating an environment where your child can think for themselves instead of waiting for you to tell them the “right” thing to do.

This could be useful when you find yourself “stuck” in parenting … or potentially in other relationships too.

Remember, children are trying to grow up.

The choices that our children make are an effort to assert their independence, to grow and develop. As the adults that care for them, we would do well to remember that exercising choice takes practice.

They will make mistakes … and that is good!

Our job is to help them think through these choices. Just as their muscles get stronger through activity, a child’s ability to make better choices comes from having room to exercise that choice.

The “I wonder” question gives you a chance to make room for choices.

For example, if a child has made a mistake or had some difficulty that day, you could ask a question such as “I wonder what some other options would be if that situation happens again?”

In this way, you are giving them the option to think through what they might do. This gives their brain some exercise, even if they come up with a silly option or two, they are the one who is having to think it through.

Telling your child what to do is not necessarily helpful.

As the adults, we developed our expertise over time … and often through a lot of trial and error. If we tell a child exactly what to do and how to do it, then we inhibit their inner ability to problem-solve. Unwittingly, we may be transmitting to our child our own worries about their ability to handle their problems.

Our child may start to think that we do not trust them. They may think that they are not “enough” to handle their own problems.

Remember: mistakes are how they learn. It was how you learned too!

Gently bring them back to thinking through the problem by asking an “I wonder” question.

  • I wonder what we can do?”
  • I wonder if there is another option?”
  • I wonder if someone else could have helped?”
  • I wonder how you could avoid being in that situation again?”

Your goal is to get them to think the problem through for themselves.

This brings us to the most important point: locus of control. Having an “external locus of control” means that you believe that events happen to you, that you have very little control over the outcome, that everything is up to fate. In contrast, having an “internal locus of control” leads you to feel choice in an outcome. You believe that your choices matter and that they can affect the next steps.

Children are learning about the world through their teachers and the other adults in their lives. Therefore if we are constantly making choices for them or protecting them from the consequences of their choices, we are telling them that they do not have control, that their fate is external and outside of them. We are giving them a world where they do not have control. Most children react with anxiety to that world.

But if we provide some safety around our children while still providing ample room for choice in their lives, we communicate that they are “in control” of their decisions. We reduce the tendency to blame others. We encourage them to take responsibility for their actions.

This is why “I wonder” questions are important.

These questions prompt exploration instead of an easy answer given by some external other. “I wonder” questions recognize that there may not be a perfectly correct answer to a life situation, that they will have to explore and figure that out for themselves. Asking your child the “I wonder” question puts them in the position of flexing their decision-making muscle, helping it grow stronger.

And on a relational sidenote…

The “I wonder” question is not half-bad at working through sticking points at home or at work. Remember that there too we like to exercise some amount of decision-making control. If your spouse or partner or colleague feels that you are constantly giving them the answer, this may make them feel “less than” or “not a part of the team”. Using an “I wonder” question reminds them (and you) that we are all in this together.

So, consider practicing some “I wonder” questions. Better yet, allow yourself to be open to alternate answers! How they solve their own problems may surprise you! And it will give you a chance to grow …together.

clinical social worker, spiritual director, author, husband, father, son, runner in Georgia, co-author of When Anxiety Strikes from Kregel Publications.

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