Parents often ask me how to develop kids’ thinking, so that they grow up to be successful and happy. My answer is: ask the right questions.
Beliefs form the boundaries around our thinking. They separate between what we think we can and cannot do. What we believe we can do is within the boundaries of our thinking. We call these “empowering beliefs”. What we think we cannot do is outside the boundaries of our thinking. We call these “limiting beliefs”.
We are all limited in the way we think. Why? Because we do not know what we do not know. Think of the brain as a map we design from the moment we are born. We are exposed to many things and form beliefs that we use to navigate life.
When a belief is strong, we draw wide highways, with big bold “One way” signs in the one direction and “Do not enter” signs in the opposite direction. When the belief is not so strong, we “travel” there occasionally. When there are no beliefs about a topic, we usually skip those areas of our map.
What we believe we cannot do is off the map, so we never go there. For example, I think that I cannot fly by flapping my arms. The ability to fly is outside the boundaries of my thinking. It is off my map. So I have never tried to fly by flapping my arms.
Our thinking expands or contracts our navigating map and creates the boundaries. Do not get me wrong, boundaries are important. They prevented me from flying from the top of my bed when I was a baby and probably helped me survive many accidents while checking whether I could fly.
At the same time, boundaries create a “mind prison”, where we live with ourselves. To break free from this prison, we need to expand the boundaries to bring more joy, happiness, love, success, health and freedom into our life.
I explain this to my coaching clients. Those who have children understand it best when I talk about their children’s boundaries of thinking. It is easy to understand that kids’ maps are small and they have more “cannot do” items than “can do” and that they need someone else, usually their parents, to help them change.
Grownups find it hard to recognize that they have limiting beliefs and that some areas of their life are off their mental map. So to make it easier for you, I will use examples of children and hope that you will use them for your own benefit as well.
All the parents in the world want the best for their kids. We work so much to provide for them. We take care of them, feed them, make sure they have a roof over their head, send them to school and spend a fortune to get them ahead in life.
I have a bit of a problem with this focus. If we give our kids a limited map, with more areas of life “off the map” than “on the map”, then it will not matter how much healthy food we buy, how much we spend on gadgets and whether we send them to a private school. Their world map, which they will use to navigate their life, will be limited.
Sometimes, we want so much to give our kids from our experience and knowledge that we rob them of the opportunity to expand their own thinking boundaries. The hardest thing is to understand that we cannot expand anyone else’s thinking. They have to do it themselves. I explained this in my book, Motivating Kids.
As parents, we can only facilitate our kids’ change, but not go through it for them. I wish we did, but we cannot!
So how can we change what kids limiting beliefs? How do we develop our kids’ thinking?
I am here to tell you that we can. In fact, this is what coaching is all about. A life coach is a person who searches for limiting beliefs and changes the way the client thinks of his or her own abilities to overcome a specific challenge.
When my clients thank me for what I have done for them, I tell them they have done it themselves and I have only facilitated the change. I have only helped them expand their own boundaries of thinking, make their map bigger and give themselves more options. I can do it with my clients, both young and old. You can do it with your children, both toddlers and teens. If you do it to yourself, that is a bonus!
First, we need to discover the thinking boundaries and questions are the best way to do it. Questions are like a dog playing “fetch”. Ask, and the mind’s “dog” will go and search for this “ball” and will not rest until it finds it. Have you ever tried to remember something, like “What was the name of the actor who played in the movie?”, and you only remembered it the next day? Well, it took your “dog” 24 hours to fetch the answer, but it did.
There are many kinds of questions. Some of them are great for developing thinking and some are not so great. Some questions help us discover our boundaries, some help us expand them, but some limit them even more.
Here is a list of questions and their properties. Know which ones to ask (and which not to ask) to develop kid’s thinking.
Open questions are the best questions to ask. Why? Because in order to answer them, the mind’s “dog” does not rest until it finds the answer and it may even get to the “fence” around our thinking. The more time we spend there, near the boundaries, the greater our chance to find an opening and extend our thinking boundaries.
The challenge with asking open question is that we need lots of patience.
Here are some rules about asking questions:
- Ask with genuine interest
- Wait for the answer
- Do not judge the answer
It is very tempting to push for an answer. Don’t! Remember, when you ask, you are facilitating a process of exploring new thoughts. The answer does not matter as much as the process.
Here are some examples of open questions that may reach the boundaries of thinking:
- What do you think of this idea?
- What is your opinion about …?
- What makes you happy?
- How do you feel?
- What can we do to make it work?
- How would you like me to help you?
Closed “Court” Questions
Closed questions are the worst kind of questions to ask. Closed questions invite a “Yes” or “No” answer and limit the boundaries of thinking. The question limits the mind to “black and white”, “possible or impossible”, “right or wrong” – no freedom.
I call them “court questions”. Imagine a witness on trial when the prosecutor “leads the witness” towards a specific answer. There is no thinking, no expansion of boundaries, just cornering the person to satisfy the needs of the person asking the question.
Rhetorical questions are also closed. In fact, they are not real questions, and we should avoid them, because they do the opposite of expanding thinking.
Here are some examples of closed “court” questions. Please note that some of them seem nice, but still do nothing to expand the thinking:
- Would you like to go to the shops?
- Are you aware of …?
- Can you please stop that? (Not a question!)
- Have you washed the dishes yet?
- Are you coming for dinner on time?
- Would you like me to do that for you?
- Do you agree?
- Can you hear me when I am talking?
- Do you get what I mean?
- Am I right or am I right?
Statements Disguised as Questions
The third type of questions, which also limits thinking, is statements disguised as questions. This is when the person “asking” the question states their opinion and hides it behind a question tone of voice.
Here are some examples for such “don’t answer” questions:
- How do you think I feel?
- Do you think we had what you have when we were kids?
- What am I, your driver?
- How do you expect me to do that?
- Who left the light on in the shower?
- Do I look like a bank?
Other questions we need to avoid are “Why?” questions, when we do not want the person to justify a bad situation he/she is in.
Here are examples of “why” questions that it is best to avoid:
- Why did you hit your brother?
- Why didn’t you wash the dishes like we agreed?
- Why did you leave your clothes on the floor?
- Why haven’t you done your homework yet?
- Why are you feeling so bad?
- Why can’t you listen to me?
“Moving Forward” Questions
Another set of fantastic questions are open, “moving forward” questions. They are the questions that prevent us from lingering in a bad past and get us thinking of possible good futures. They are very helpful when your child seems stuck.
Examples of “moving forward” questions:
- What are your options?
- What do you think you can do about it?
- How do you imagine it would work?
- What have you learned from it? (and don’t be tempted to answer it for them)
- What were the good things that came out of it?
- How would you like me to take part in this?
- What would happen if we tried it?
- Why not?
- What is the worst thing that can happen?
Remember, questions we ask ourselves or others, contract the boundaries of thinking or expand them. Some say that the quality of our life depends on the quality of questions we ask.
I tend to imagine a map when talking about boundaries of thinking. I see it as if our identity is carved on that map. We have the choice to live on an island or a continent, and when we are parents (or teachers or life coaches), we can use questions to make sure our children (or students or clients) have the tools to stretch the boundaries of their thinking.
With this mindset, the sky is the limit!