What is Question Sensitivity and How Is It Important?

“What did you do today?”

“Why did you say that?”

“What color is this crayon?”

“Do you want to wear your blue shirt or your red shirt today?”

Have you ever stopped to notice how many questions you ask your children?

Recently I had an opportunity to talk with some friends of mine who are parents of an almost three-year-old.

I had overheard a few conversations and was struck by how often these parents asked question after question of their toddler as a way to engage and encourage her to think.

What I have observed some ambivalence about the process of asking children (or anyone) questions.

That is…questions, by their very nature, have the potential to be more or less safe and inviting versus intimidating and threatening.

One way to view questions is in terms of the power dynamics they influence in a conversation.

Typically the person asking the question for that moment is assuming more power. Because he/she asks something of another person, that person, especially if it is a child, can feel obligated to respond.

However, when parents ask questions of children, the children can feel excited because their parents are showing them interest. And children can be eager to respond as a way to connect with and please their parents. Children can feel powerful when they can answer their parents’ questions.

At the same time, the potential exists for children to feel intimidated, threatened and even anxious because of the power their parents have to place pressure on them.

They can feel obligated to respond with what they think is the right answer. They also can feel anxious because they aren’t sure what might happen if they don’t answer as the parent wants them to answer. Or, they don’t know the answer to what is being asked.

There is an interesting mental process that happens with someone asks you a question.

Typically, you may stop to wonder if the questioner is testing, pressuring, or inviting you to share something. You may wonder if your answer will lead to something positive, like an affirmation, or a feeling of shame because you aren’t able to answer adequately.

Teens are especially sensitive to being asked questions. They sometimes resent the underlying power dynamics and feel pulled to rebel from answering even innocent or neutral questions.

Early in this post, I intentionally used a question: “Have you ever stopped to notice how many questions you ask your children?

I invite you to recall how that question made you feel.

Some may have felt challenged in a positive way. Others may have felt the potential existed for being criticized or pressured to respond in a certain way.

Think about how differently a person might feel if instead I had said, “It can be interesting for parents to consider the impact questions can have on children.”

Readers might feel just a little less pressured and more invited to consider the impact without feeling obligated to consider the impact.

This reaction typically happens under a person’s consciousness radar. Unless we stop to notice the subtle shifts in how safe we are feeling versus how cautious (or even threatened, which is what question sometimes do), we probably would miss the differences in impact of questions versus statements.

The differences in the inner reactions might be slight

These four comprehensive characteristics can impact how safe versus how threatened a child may feel:

  • The child’s degree of self-confidence
  • Who asks the question
  • How many questions are being asked
  • How answerable the questions are (meaning how much potential there is for children to respond in ways their parents will approve)

Now back to my young friends…I invited them to become more question sensitive.

…After we talked about the potential questions have to be intimidating and even threatening.

Instead of asking a child, “How was your day?” (which can be an innocuous request that shows interest but can also feel like a kind of pressure to perform or figure out what the parents are expecting), parents can say things like, “I was thinking about you today and was trying to imagine some of the things you were doing.” This can be a kind of invitation to a child rather than a demand that the child share anything.

“Let me tell you some of the things that happened to me today” can also inspire a child to reciprocate by sharing what he or she did during the day.

And yes, I use questions to invite people to reflect.

I hope I ask them in such a way as to not produce feelings of being threatened. Healthy questions are more about invitations to share than demands to perform or please the person asking the questions.

At the same time, I invite you to notice the differences in how you feel when asked a question, versus receiving an invitation to reflect that is not in the form of a question.

And I encourage you to think about how much more sensitive and vulnerable children can be to being asked questions.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Think about conversations you have had with people today, especially with your children. Notice how many of the conversations were a Q&A format. Consider how each person in those conversations might have felt when asked questions. Notice that everything said in this paragraph was in the form of invitations and not questions!
  2. Consider if it might have even felt more encouraging and less demanding if instead I said, “I invite you to think about conversations you had with people today.”
  3. To what extent might it be helpful in your relationship with your children to become more question sensitive, meaning to raise your awareness about the possible impact your questions could be having and the power you have to ask fewer questions by reframing what you’re thinking about so it comes out as an invitation to share rather than a demand?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network