Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

Parenting Tools

S is for the Socratic Method

Can you ask questions that your teen wants to answer?
Can you ask questions that your teen wants to answer?

By Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

Today in my office, a 15 year old teen taunted his mom by saying, “Colton is my hero—he outran ‘The Man’!” She had been commenting on an article in our local paper in which I likened the barefoot bandit to a modern day Jesse James. Perfectly on cue, his provocative statement incited the mom to lecture about moral turpitude and the horrors of living a life of crime. Do you imagine that her son absorbed any moral lessons while he laughed in her face?

When your teen declares that marijuana should be legalized, college is a waste of time, or manners are stupid, how do you reply? Do you respond with comments about (and criticisms of) the particular topic at hand? Or do you take a few seconds and breaths for “getting to calm”, so that you can figure out the best approach for discussing important matters with your teen?

We called our book “Getting to Calm: Cool-headed strategies for parenting tweens and teens” because teens push parents’ emotional buttons so easily, frequently and intensely. When we are upset by our kids, we fall into the trap of reacting rather than responding wisely. Even though we know that negative responses—like criticism, sarcasm, lecturing, ridicule, contradiction, and dismissiveness—are likely to lead to blow-ups or shutdowns, they are common reactions when our children express ideas that make us worried about their health and welfare.

In my next series of articles posted here, I am going to describe some tools that parents can use with some of the classic challenges we face while parenting teenagers. The first tool to be discussed here addresses the situation in which a teen throws out an idea we think is hare-brained, if not potentially harmful. I call it the “Socratic Method” because it enhances analytic thinking, helps parents understand their teens’ internal worlds and avoids power struggles. Here’s how it works—

The goal of using the Socratic Method is to flesh out your teen’s notions and perspectives through guided inquiry. It is not to win an argument, persuade or make a teaching point. It involves asking questions without an agenda other than inquiry. The parent’s tone should be neutral, interested and respectful. Socrates is known for stating that he was a man of ignorance. Keep this in mind. You are ignorant—looking for insights into the mind trails of your teen’s psychological and intellectual world.

Using the teen’s statement about Colton Harris-Moore above, some examples of Socratic-like questions are listed below. Ideally, each teen response would lead to your own “linked” line of inquiry which would help clarify their assumptions and perspectives; thus, these questions are jump starts for that unfolding process—not to be considered as “interview” questions!

• “What makes Colton more of a hero to you than any other 19 year guy running from the law?”
• “If he committed crimes that involved violence against persons, rather than just property, would that make a difference to you?”
• “When young people refer to “The Man” these days, what are you referring to exactly?”
• “How would Colton be different than a hero who developed an AIDS vaccination, and would you enjoy reading about them in different ways?”
• “Does reading about Colton’s sad family history change how you feel about his being a hero?”
• “How does the concept of “The Man” make  young people naturally want to root for the opposition?”

The Socratic approach does not teach moral values. It only relates to moral education in so far as it may stimulate a deeper analysis of complex ideas. Topics like the legalization of drugs or the merits of a college education are “hot button” issues for most parents. A sarcastic, dismissive or critical response is common, even though it is not effective in producing a teen’s deeper thinking on the matter!

Parents ask me routinely how to improve their relationships with their challenging teens. It is so easy to list important things like, “Keep the positive interchanges outweighing the negative ones by five to one", “Stay calm in spite of her moody personal attacks”, and “Listen for understanding instead of lecturing.” We fail frequently, because our buttons are pushed and we react emotionally. First we must bite our tongues, then we should take some breaths, and then we should figure out what (if anything) may be constructive to say at that point in time.

Sometimes when teens make wild declarations (e.g. “All my teachers are bigots and fakes”), they may be letting off steam, merely baiting us, or spoiling for a fight. Other times they are exploring their recently expanded mental and psychological worlds. When teens use their newly minted cognitive skills to skewer adult values, imperfections, and inconsistencies, it can be very uncomfortable and provocative. It can also be an opportunity to have some really interesting conversations!

The big challenge is to keep cool-headed so you can use your own mental powers to choose effective strategies for engaging the maturing but immature brains of your teens. Put yourself on a “getting to calm” protocol, decide to see your teen as a fascinating person, be as ignorant as Socrates and learn about your teen's logic skills, opinions and feelings with “The Method.”

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