The One Question Rule

Several weeks ago I wrote about using the Socratic method. And while I stand by what I said in that post, I realized through talking with several parents that I need to include a caveat: the Socratic method only works if you are in a completely calm and open place. It only works if you are really, truly open to whatever course of action your teenager decides on. Because even with the best questioning, and even after considering all of the view points and possible courses of action, your teenager may still decide on a different course of action than you had hoped for.

So, if you are not in a very open place, you need to steer clear of the Socratic method. (Be honest with yourself!) In the event that you are not feeling very open, here is a different rule-of-thumb for you: You get one question. So make it a damn good one!

Here are the kinds of situations where this rule of thumb is the most critical:

  • You walk in on your child having sex/doing drugs/sneaking out/etc.
  • You hear through the grapevine that your child has done one of the above
  • The teenagers next door has an all-night, raucous party while their parents are out of town.
  • Anything else that just makes you angry
  • Anything else where you think that the young person in question needs to be punished, told that they were wrong, or in any way lectured to

In these situations, you get one question. So take your time thinking about it – bounce your question off your therapist, your spouse, your best friend, your mother. Get the wording just right so it will really get to the heart of the issue, and leave very little wiggle room for a non-answer. You have 5 – 7 days, at most, to figure out your question.

Then find a relatively calm time when no one is rushing off, and ask the question. Then stop talking. Do not elaborate. Do not rephrase the question and ask it again. Do not qualify it with something like, “Do you know what I mean?” Just wait. If the silence gets awkward, that’s okay. Let it be an awkward silence that the teenager feels the need to fill.

So, to paraphrase this rather longer-than-I-had-intended post: The Socratic method works very well when you’re feeling centered. Otherwise, use the One Question Rule.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.

1 Comment

  1. I’m still having a little difficulty picturing a situation where a Socratic Inquiry is going to lead to successful communication between parent and teenager. Maybe if you could post a sample dialog of sorts, I might be able to understand better what you are picturing.

    You even touched in this post on the reason why I still have my doubts when you said: “It only works if you are really, truly open to whatever course of action your teenager decides on.” I don’t believe that this can ever happen between a parent and child.

    The relationship between parent and child is multifaceted. On the one hand, a parent is a little like a friend, because we always want only what is best for our children. On the other hand, we are an authority figure to the child, and sometimes what is best for the child is for the parent to intervene in the child’s life. It is, after all, a tricky balance to give your child the right amount of independence at the right time.

    The way I’m picturing this Socratic Inquiry is like a parent approaching his child wearing his “authority figure” hat, but hiding the “authority figure” hat underneath a “friends” hat. But make no mistake, that “friends” hat will get ripped off in 3 seconds to reveal the “authority” hat if the probing questions start to go in the wrong direction.

    Kids are not stupid, and can see right through the ruse. I think that the one question rule is much more genuine.

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