Parenting Tip: Asking Instead of Assuming |

Parenting Tip: Asking Instead of Assuming

How many times do our children do things that we just don’t understand? They throw a tantrum out of nowhere, they suddenly start behaving badly, and they seem to push all of the family’s buttons without reason.

And how do we usually react to them? With whatever emotion, baggage and assumptions we’ve built up inside and happen to be carrying around in the moment.

“Stop bothering your brother.” 

“You always do this.” 

“I’ve told you time and time again.”

Sound familiar? Each of these statements, and others like them, chastise the child for what we assume is happening in the background. But here’s the thing about our assumptions: they can often be wrong. They also don’t allow our child to speak up for themselves or process what’s really going on with their actions or feelings.

Psychology explains assumptions as being part of what’s called Attribution Theory, a psychological model that explains how individuals relate actions and behavior with causes or reasons. The model states that when a person behaves in a certain way, human beings tend to make assumptions about that behavior in one of a few ways:

  • As a defining characteristic of that person’s personality or internal motivation;
  • As an action caused by something in the environment or situation;
  • As an action motivated by something based on our fears or past experiences. 

Attributions and assumptions can happen in all of our relationships, whether they are with our spouses, siblings, coworkers, friends, or children. Character assumptions in particular are known as the “Fundamental Attribution Error” because more often than not behavior is situational.

For parents, research suggests that when we make character assumptions about our children, it in turn influences our behavior towards them, and that can in turn influence their development, especially when our assumptions are negative. 

When we negatively assume things about our children’s character and react to their behavior based on those assumptions, we prime our relationship for conflict. We assume and react, and they defend. We assume and react again, and they defend again. Now not only do we assume the children are behaving “badly” but we also begin thinking of them as defiant and argumentative and carry those assumptions into the next reaction. This creates more conflict and distance between child and parent.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

When we see questionable or negative behaviors from our children, we can learn to stop and take a pause before reacting or assigning an assumed motive or character trait. The way to do this is through curiosity.

By staying curious we can treat our children’s behavior like data and ask questions to get to the bottom of why it’s happening. Asking questions to clarify actions helps keep us from assuming the worst about our children’s actions based on our fears or reactionary judgments.

Let’s look at the example of a teenager who regularly sleeps in and doesn’t wake until the afternoon. Some might see this behavior and assume that the teen is “lazy” or “wasting their days”.

When we stop to think about teenagers, their physical development, and their needs, we can begin to move away from assumptions about their character, and posit situational reasons for their behavior instead such as they likely need extra sleep while their hormones work overtime to prepare for major physical growth.

If we actually stop to ask our teen questions, we may come to find that they’re not getting enough physical activity in the day which is contributing to them staying up late at night and then waking late the next day.

When we see behavior as data, we can use that data to achieve deeper understanding that fosters meaningful, compassionate connections with our children, rather than being stuck in a negative cycle of assumptions and conflict.

Melissa Barreto is a home-educating mother of five and Co-Founder of Wildflower Homeschool Collective, a homeschool organization based in Northern New Jersey.

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