Questioning vs. Criticizing

In early May, I put out a request on Facebook to grandmothers and grandfathers. I asked for suggestions for a post that would be of interest to them in their role as grandparents. I received eight suggestions. One was about the impact of organized sports on family time; that suggestion resulted in a post titled Balls and Baked Ziti. The other seven suggestions, all from grandmothers who have sons, were about navigating relationships with daughters-in-law. Here is what one grandmother offered:

The hardest part for me is that you have to watch your own child make the inevitable mistakes that we all make as parents, knowing that your grandchild/ren will be the ones to suffer. I don’t want my son and daughter-in-law to think I’m judging them or criticizing them at all, so I step back completely–but I still worry that my life experience as a parent tells me that many of the things they’re doing could create real problems for their child later. I feel helpless to stop the process. So…I just try to let all of that go and just enjoy the amazing little human being that they have created and love every minute I get with him! – Elyce, somewhere north of 55 years old

Full disclosure, I do not consider myself an expert on grandparenting. Further, I was blessed with a mother-in-law who was very respectful of boundaries. While I am certain she had opinions about the ways that her son and I raise our children, she passed away without a word to me on the topic. My own mother has never held back an opinion, but she has been overwhelmingly supportive of our child-rearing practices. Given all of this, I had to think about this question from a very broad perspective. I had to apply what I know about family dynamics in general to this particular type of relationship.

Somewhere along the way, I learned the concept of listening to learn versus listening to argue. This is a really useful concept in family therapy; I invoke it often to help family members understand that listening isn’t really useful unless they are open to learning something new or to changing their opinions.

I think a similar distinction can be made about questions; one can ask a question to gain understanding or one can ask a question to express an opinion. As is always the case with interpersonal communication, the true intent of a question cannot be surmised simply from the words. One must also pay attention to body language (such as crossed arms or rolling eyes) as well as tone (such as sarcastic or exasperated), volume, and other nonverbal qualities of speech. A question such as “Why do you tie her shoes for her?” can be asked as a genuine question or it can carry implied disapproval.

Elyce is a wise and kind woman who knows a great deal about mothering as well as child development. I hate the thought that all of her great wisdom is silenced by her concern that she will offend her son or daughter-in-law. Still, Elyce’s way of parenting is only one way; it is very possible that two great parents could approach a parenting issue from two entirely different ways of thinking and both be doing a great job. And since none of us is a perfect parent, it is safe to say that Elyce made mistakes, perhaps very different ones from the ones being made by her grandson’s parents. Just as her son has grown into a fine young man in part because of all the great parenting she did and in spite of the parenting gaffs she made, Elyce can trust in the resilience of her grandson. He can still grow into a fine young man, just like his father.

As with many aspects of interpersonal relationships, asking questions in a way that conveys genuine interest in hearing another’s perspective is a nuanced proposition. Print is a difficult way to capture the nuance since so much meaning is conveyed non-verbally. Imagine the following scenarios. Then read the questions in italics at the end of each scenario. Think about how the speaker might ask the question in a way that communicates openness and respect rather than criticism.

Grandma has been staying with her son and daughter-in-law following the birth of their 3rd child. The plan is that she will stay for a month to help around the house, to prepare meals, and to transport the older children to and from school and activities. All has gone smoothly, and Grandma is very impressed with the couple’s parenting practices overall. She believes her grandchildren are happy and well-adjusted. The only struggle she has faced during the first week is that the parents allow the children to watch television while eating breakfast on school mornings. This is not a problem for Grandma’s 11-year-old granddaughter who leaves the table as soon as she is finished eating to go and primp, but Grandma has been struggling to get her 7-year-old grandson to leave the table and finish getting ready for school. She says to her daughter-in-law, “I’m having a little trouble getting Declan ready for school on time. Any suggestions for getting him to turn off the television?” [Imagine how different an impact the following question, which clearly expresses an opinion, would have: “Do you really think it’s a good idea for the kids to watch television on school mornings?”]

Papa is concerned that his daughter and son-in-law are overly solicitous with their 6-year-old daughter. He sees them preparing special meals for her because she is a fussy eater, allowing her to stay up past her bedtime if she claims she’s not tired, and driving her to school if she doesn’t feel like taking the bus. He is understandably concerned that she is becoming spoiled. One morning when Papa arrives to take his granddaughter to the park, he finds his daughter dressing Deirdre while the little girl lies limply on her bed and whines about being too tired to dress herself. He asks his daughter, “What do you think would happen if we give Deirdre some time to wake up and dress herself? We could wait downstairs.”  [Imagine how different an impact the following question would have: “Why are you dressing her when she is perfectly capable of dressing herself?”]

In both instances, the grandparents have reasonable grounds to be concerned and are careful to ask open questions which defer to the parents’ expertise on their child(ren). Any suggestions… and What do you think would happen if… are great ways to phrase questions because they communicate a desire to gain understanding. What if allowing Declan to watch television over breakfast is the only effective way his parents have figured out to get him out of bed and dressed in a timely manner? What if Deirdre’s mother knew that the best way to deal with her refusal to get dressed was to ignore it, but Mom didn’t want to inconvenience her father by making him wait for Deirdre to cooperate?

If even open, deferential questions still feel risky, then it might be a good idea to seek “permission” to ask about or comment on something you have noticed. For example, Grandma might say to her daughter-in-law, “I’m curious about the routine on school mornings. Is it okay if I ask you something?” Once given permission to do so, she could ask, “How do you get Declan to turn off the television and finish getting ready? I’ve been struggling with that.” Papa could say, “May I make a suggestion?” Given the go-ahead, he could add, “What don’t we go downstairs and give Deirdre some time to wake up and get dressed so I can take her to the park?”

If these strategies don’t work and open, carefully couched questions still elicit negative responses, it is probably best not to voice parenting concerns in the future. In therapy, I often talk about how one’s relationship with a child (even an adult child) is more important than almost everything else (see Safety, Relationship, Everything Else). Questioning your son’s approach to parenting is not worth jeopardizing your relationship with him. If your daughter and her partner are actually handling a parenting situation in a way that creates problems down the road, you increase the likelihood that she will come to you for advice when that happens by 1. avoiding critical comments, 2. respecting her expertise about her own child(ren), and 3. valuing your relationship with her above having your say about her child-rearing. Rather than risk straining the relationship, take a deep breath, trust in the power of development and resilience, and as Elyse does, just enjoy the amazing little human beings and love every minute you get with them!

[Names and other identifying information has been changed to protect privacy.]

About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates ( which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
This entry was posted in Children of all ages, Elementary/Lower School, High/Upper School, Middle/Junior High School, Preschool/Nursery School, Young Adult and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Questioning vs. Criticizing

  1. Lorraine Battle says:

    Blessings and thank you,

    I stumbled upon your post at 228 am because my 11 year old whose birthday was yesterday said for the fourth time ” he wishes he wasn’t born ” . This statement comes after a special party with his friends and a surprise trampoline park adventure. I, his nurturer/mother enabler I realize after reading some of your posts- over react thinking I’ve watched my sun but be unhappy for over a year – always a happy ready to play and smile but to mention the most pragmatic young man i knew, and of course it’s my fault-ugly divorce in which father reacts by moving away getting remarried having another baby and not being in the children’s life at all, I mean no birthday cards, no phone calls, no visits. My sun asked me last year if I thought his dad forgot about him when his dad didn’t send a birthday card.

    I say this all to say thank you. After reading several entries I saw myself and my sons perspective and I saw my inconsistent actions that have allowed this situation.
    Your ability to put the story/lesson out there in a matter of factly- sister-best friend way is refreshing and appreciated along with energizing. I am grateful, plan to reinstitute family meetings, role playing and getting and giving unconditional Love.

    In other words as Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland said ” this is impassible, nothing is impossible.

    Particularly if you gather your resources and are Blessed to stumble upon a gift from the internet.

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