By Ann Melby Shenkle
What happens following a specific question? Brain scans have shown that specific areas of the brain show activity during questioning. Are there specific hormones and/or proteins involved? Does experience or predilection alter the response? Are there chemical/physiological changes in the brain associated with learning? Does medication alter specific brain function? Does reward or punishment? There are assumptions and suppositions all over the place, but little research that is practical for parents.
What happens when a child won’t answer a simple question? With good feedback, chances are a lot better that one can exercise good parenting. But when a parent asks, “What’s going on?” A typical answer is, “Nothing”. What is happening at recess? Nothing. What is happening in math? Nothing. What is going on between you and Billy? Nothing. There seems to be nothing going on anywhere for a lot of children.
Not responding when asked gives a child enormous feelings of control. And the child gets rewarded over and over each time the parent asks. All the child has to do is keep schtum or offer a non-answer, and he wins. A child senses frustration and helplessness like a thirsty traveler senses water. A skillful child will keep right on going in that direction.
It’s important to understand that very good parents get questions rebuffed. Children know how to handle the information game. If your youngster is using “not answering” as a power play, you will ALWAYS get rebuffed. The reward for the youngster is that the parental goat is easily gotten. This is where folks can learn from good teachers.
Teachers know that change may require inserting a glitch in what has become a bad habit. Changing when you ask a question, or setting a “question” schedule might work. “In a minute, I get two questions.” Keep it short. “On Wednesdays at 5:00, we are going have a three-minute talk. We will have it every week. Sometimes I ask the questions, and sometimes you will.” Express a specific need. “I need to know how things are going with you. Why? It’s my job! So what’s up?” Be confident and assertive.
Adding a small consequence also changes the context. Make sure you have attention and ask your question. No answer gets a consequence. Keep a pint jar — the Consequence Jar — handy. Drop in a penny, and walk away. “Sorry, not answering causes you to lose a penny”. (The penny will get deducted from weekly allowance.) If the situation that you are asking about is very serious, indicate that, briefly, and isolate the child when there is no response. “No phone, no computer, go to your room. I’ll check with you again after you have had time to think.”
“What happened in spelling today?” “I practiced once and got them all correct!” Rewarding answers also works. Put a penny or two in the reward jar, with a big flourish, when communication has been good. “Now we are talking!”