Photo: Jamie Grill (Getty Images)
The talk coming from the back seat of my car was starting to make me uncomfortable.
“Aren’t you glad you don’t have to be in a class with Harrison anymore? Ugh, he was soo annoying.”
My nine-year-old daughter’s friend is sweet and precocious but also occasionally prone to talk about other kids, and not always kindly. I normally don’t interject into my kids’ conversations with their friends, but when I hear unkind words, I jump in.
That said, it’s not okay to shame a child, especially when that child isn’t mine.
So I simply said this: “I wonder how Harrison would feel if you were to say that with him standing right here in front of you.”
“I wonder” is my go-to sentence starter to get my kids to listen without explicitly telling them what to do. In this scenario, it was meant to force a pause into the conversation and help my daughter’s friend think about how she sounded and about the harm her words could cause.
The phrasing, it turns out, is commonly used by psychologists, particularly when the goal is to help parents get their child to discover and decide for themselves the right course of action. Jason B. Hobbs, LCSW wrote on Medium that he often encourages parents to begin their sentences with their children with “I wonder if …” The point, Hobbs says, is to guide rather than direct, “ensuring that your child has the option to make choices for themselves versus you making the choice for them.”
When I “wondered” aloud how Harrison would feel if he’d been standing right there, it was a way to get my daughter’s friend to realize on her own that what she was doing wasn’t okay—but without shaming her or overtly disciplining her. (Discipline is her parents’ job.) She quickly back-pedaled on her statement and took back the word “annoying.” She even went a little further and added that he had come a long way during the school year and was really funny and creative. She’d taken a moment to think about it and had immediately realized how unkind her words had sounded. And she corrected herself.
The “I wonder” technique has an even greater benefit, according to Hobbs: It teaches problem-solving independence.
Adults know what to do based on many years of experience, much of it by trial and error. And although we could simply tell a kid exactly what to do and how to do it, although we could just tell them what is right and what is wrong, when we do that, “we inhibit their inner ability to problem-solve.” Saying “I wonder” gets a child to think through a problem and come up with a solution on their own. Creative problem-solving and introspection about our words and actions are not innate skills—they must be practiced. So giving our kids the opportunity to practice these skills is a much longer-lasting and valuable lesson than simply ordering a kid to follow a rule.
You might use “I wonder” the next time you want your child to think deeply about something. If your kid is asking to stay up late to finish watching a movie, you might say, “I wonder how you’ll feel tomorrow when you have that swim meet.” Or if your teen is feeling overwhelmed by a big project, you might think aloud, “I wonder if there are ways to make it easier.” With these two little words, you’re laying a foundation for them to think and wonder just how much their choices matter.