Julie, your sister is right, a good question can help ‘check in.’
The brain hates a lack of equilibrium and a good question unsettles the mind. The return to balance will necessitate an answer. Not so with a bad or poorly worded question. For example, ask an average 8 year old if they think the dollar should return to the gold standard, and all you will probably get is a blank stare.
A good question has to hook their mind. For example, few teenagers can resist this question, “Who is the most annoying person, other than me?”
The qualification, “other than me,” is optional – use with caution.
Next, don’t use the same question again, soon. Teenagers and spy masters are experts in obfuscation, so if they know you are going to ask, “If you could drop all your classes except one, which one?” Then they are going to have an already prepared answer according to what will get you to leave them alone, like: “I love all my classes and all my teachers, I have nothing to complain about. Duh!”
D.U.H. stands for: Don’t You Have (a brain) – if you are wondering about the spelling, remember it’s a teenager’s acronym.
Next, prepare a follow up question, which generally needs to be more subtle than just "why?" For example, this question fits nicely after the previous one: “If you were in charge of the school curriculum and you can have classes in anything, but you have to have classes, what would be the subjects?”
Family questions are really good. The right question can have other members of the team going back and forth like a Chinese table-tennis match, and you can just sit back and take it all in. This might do the trick, “What is THE best movie ever?” When the conversation starts to lull, throw in a suggestion that disrupts the equilibrium again, “Gone with the Wind.”
This one is probably a follow-on question, and best when your son is “trapped” in the car on a long drive: “What would have to happen for you to say, Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This?”
And this question can trigger a real long debate and can be very illustrative of your kids’ thinking: “Which is worse, drugs or pornography?” (the answer is not as important as the discussion – but the answer is pornography) if you want more on this, check out our parenting class (click here).
Good luck, and just remember, Winston Churchill’s memoir is 6 volumes long.
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