How The Phrase 'I Wonder' Can Guide -- Rather Than Direct -- Your Teen

by Kristen Mae

When I was pregnant with my first kid, I used to fantasize about how well my kids would listen to me. I would preempt tantrums by using a calm, patient voice and offering reasonable alternatives. Once my kid became a teenager, he would always care about my opinion because I’d phrase everything in such a perfect way, he wouldn’t be able to stop himself from listening. I would have all the answers and my kids would be eager to hear them.

LOL forever and ever for all eternity.

Not that my two kids and I don’t have a fantastic relationship. We do. It’s just that, after 13 years in this gig, my little fantasy is proving to be just that — a fantasy. It’s pretty, but it bears little resemblance to reality.

My kids, like all kids, are their own autonomous beings with their own ideas, opinions, and whims. And, no matter how smart they think I am, no matter how good my ideas are, they want to exercise that autonomy. In fact, the pushier I am with my ideas about how they should do things, the more resistant they are to comply.

Two simple words can start a dialogue.

That’s why, lately, I’ve been trying to back off of giving my kids explicit advice or direct commands. Instead, whenever possible, I start discussions using the phrase, “I wonder…” I came across the idea in an article on Medium, where LCSW Jason B. Hobbs explains why, in his private practice, he often finds himself encouraging parents to use this simple phrase with their kids.

Hobbs points out that, as with any skill we are trying to improve at, making independent decisions takes practice. If parents dictate every move their kids make, the kids don’t get a chance to flex those decision-making muscles. Beginning a dialogue with the phrase “I wonder” encourages them to do so.

We parents often can’t help ourselves from jumping in to provide direction to our kids, even when it means we’re only getting in our kids’ way. Studies have shown that children, especially younger children, learn better the less adults interfere. In one study, a complicated toy was given to 4-year-olds. In one group, the children were allowed to figure out on their own all the different things the toy could do. The other group was given instructions by an adult on how to use the toy. Guess which group figured out more things to do with the toy? Too much instruction literally hinders a child’s learning.

From dictating our kids’ play to making larger decisions for them without their input, we convey the message that we doubt their ability to learn and make smart choices. Before even giving them a chance, we jump in with our vast life knowledge and tell them what we think they should do. Their brains are primed to experiment and seek independence, and yet we send them the implicit message that we don’t think they can handle it.

Use “I wonder…” to show your kids you care what they think and that you trust them.

Imagine if, as you’re trying to make a decision about whether to purchase an SUV or a van, someone butts in with, “You should take the van! It’s roomier and more practical!” But this person doesn’t know you’ve already reviewed all the specs on both vehicles, and the SUV has better gas mileage and just as much seating as the van, plus will fit in your garage better. The person didn’t even ask what factors were most important to you. They assumed they knew what was best for you and jumped in with their opinion.

That’s how we can make our kids feel when we neglect to include them in the decision-making process. It can make them feel like we don’t trust them, or like we don’t think they’re smart enough to decide things on their own.

At the moment, I’m using “I wonder…” with my teen son to help him decide which high school to attend next year. It’s a big decision. His zoned school is a very good school, a traditional high school with a football team, a solid music program, and respectable academics, especially their IB program.

Also nearby is a choice school that is the highest ranked school in the state and one of the top 500 in the country. It’s a college-prep school with fewer students and no football program, a rigorous academic program–so rigorous that many students transfer out to their zoned school after a year–and a college-acceptance rate of 100%. I know of parents whom, when their kids were accepted to this school, didn’t give their kid a choice. If they get in, they go. No discussion about it.

But, if my son is accepted, I will let him decide whether to attend. I trust him to make the right choice for him. I trust him because when I say, “I wonder how much difference you’d see between the AP classes from one school to another,” or “I wonder how you’d feel in a big school versus a small school,” or “I wonder if it would help to talk to students from both schools to get an idea of how they feel about their school,” he works through those answers aloud in a way that reassures me he is carefully weighing each option.

He talks about how, since he wants to get into engineering, he knows he needs to seriously consider the college prep school, but that he also doesn’t want to spend his entire high school career doing nothing but homework. He has ADHD and it often makes homework take significantly longer for him than for other kids. He is smart to consider this.

It’s a big decision that I won’t make for him (unless he gets stuck at 50/50 and says, “Mom, decide for me”). I generate discussion using this “I wonder” method, and it builds my confidence in his ability to make a smart choice that he can live with and feel good about. For now, it looks like he’s leaning toward the college prep school (if he gets in) with the option of transferring out if he tries and it just doesn’t work for him.

We need to show our kids they have control over their own destiny.

In his article, Hobbs talks about what he says is the most important point: locus of control. What message are we sending to our kids about the potential outcomes in their own lives? Do events simply happen to them, and they have little control over the outcome? That’s called an “external locus of control.” Or do they have a say in what happens to them? Do their choices matter? Do the decisions they make affect the outcomes in their lives? That’s an “internal locus of control.”

Hobbs says that most kids react with anxiety to a world where they feel they have no control. Sound familiar? It may not be a coincidence that the rise in “helicopter parenting” coincided with a rise in anxiety among kids and teens.

I don’t want this for my son. If I thought he wasn’t thinking things through, if I thought he didn’t care about his future or was simply looking for the easiest path, maybe I would feel inclined to exert more control over this decision. But, because I’ve been using “I wonder,” I know what he’s thinking. I’ve heard his reasoning, and it is sound. I trust him.

He will make mistakes, but that’s okay. Making mistakes, and learning from them, is an essential part of developing good decision-making skills. We all had to go through it, and so do our kids. The hardest part is wondering whether or not they’ll be okay.