The Questions We Ask
How many parents ask their children, “Did you have fun?” when they return from a party, a visit at a friend’s house, or even back from a day at school? It seems like a warm, caring, and basically innocuous question to inquire whether they had a “good time.”
In her book How Much Is Enough?, Jean Illsley Clarke explores the problems around overindulgence and shares how potentially unhealthy and unhelpful this commonly-asked question can be. She also points out how parents can be missing opportunities to foster character growth when they ask this question instead of other ones.
The Messages We Send
Clarke explains that there are subtle messages inherent in the question, “Did you have fun?” The query implies and encourages beliefs such as:
- When you go places, you should have had fun.
- If you didn’t have fun, something is wrong.
- You deserve to have fun.
- When you do things, it should be fun for you.
- The world has been designed so you will have fun.
- It’s all about your having fun.
- You should expect to find fun in everything you do.
- Having fun is what is important.
- If you didn’t have fun, someone didn’t do his job.
Wow! Can you see how powerful and emotionally damaging these messages could be? They emphasize a kind of self-centeredness and a belief that life should be about having fun and being entertained. They make personal pleasure and enjoyment a critical expectation, value, and goal.
While it is important that children enjoy life, focusing exclusively on “fun” can create children who lack compassion for others as well as an appreciation for what they have.
A Different Type of Question
Instead of focusing on personal gain, Dr. Clarke suggests that parents can encourage their children to find some way to be kind, caring, helpful, respectful, or loving. In this way, before children get ready to leave for school, a party, a special event, or just as a thought to share at the beginning of the day, children can be primed to honor a family virtue while they are out.
By focusing their children, parents can intentionally transmit values around being more mature and responsible and becoming a person of character.
The New Questions
When children come home, parents can ask them:
- “What did you do that was helpful?”
- “How were you kind while you were out?”
- “What did you do that was caring?”
- “How were you respectful?”
The Long-Term Message
Parents can then affirm their children’s positive actions, thereby reinforcing those behaviors and strengthening underlying altruistic values. Even if their children’s efforts to find ways to demonstrate virtues were not totally successful, parents may see in these attempts opportunities to initiate discussions that can enlighten their children and inspire them to continue trying.
Over time parents can encourage their children to become people of high moral character by being sensitive to the messages they, as parents and role models, communicate with their questions. As a result, children can become more mindful of the needs, feelings, and perspectives of others and can contribute in meaningful, non-material ways to their families, friends, and society.
Instead of asking you if you enjoyed reading this article, I prefer to ask if you learned something helpful as a result of reading it. Are you at all inspired to be more aware of the impact your questions can have? Did you allow yourself to consider ways you might apply the information in your own family? If yes, you deserve credit for your efforts to become a more effective and intentional parent!
Living life well is not about finding more and more ways to enjoy yourself. Living life well is more about finding ways to give back in some measure because you have been given so much. It is about raising emotionally healthy children who are able to form and maintain healthy, meaningful relationships based on fair giving and receiving.
When children are kind and consider the needs of others, they feel better about themselves because they see the impact they can have in their world. Parents give a great deal to their children when they encourage kindness and respect toward others at least as much as having fun.By Diane Wagenhals, M.Ed., CFLE, Director Parenting Resource and Education Network
For more information about values, check out the following books. Purchasing from Amazon.com through our website supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.
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