Socrates. Father of Questions, Questionable Father
October 29, 2016
How Socratic Questions can improve your parenting, in spite of Socrates’ parenting failures.
History is full of great men who were not so great to their families. For example, John Adams, one of America’s founding fathers, was reportedly an absent and cruel father of four (Ellis, 2010). Peter the Great (who was named for his greatness!) sent his first wife to a nunnery, and eventually tortured and killed his eldest son (Massie,1980). And while Socrates didn’t kill anybody (although he did die from self-poisoning), he certainly won’t win any awards on Father’s Day.
Socrates was admittedly an uninvolved father of three boys. His spouse Xanthippe also complained that his second profession, as a philosopher, was not providing enough for the family (no surprise there!). Socrates even managed to get himself executed by the state after refusing to compromise his intellectual commitments—the self-poisoning incident I mentioned above (Biography.com Editors (n.d.). Retrieved September 04, 2016). By today’s standards, some would view his choice to die for his ideals, leaving behind a widow and three children, as a strange form of abandonment—hardly a role-model for a parenting blog!
Father of Questions
But in spite of his parenting infamy, Socrates would gift the Western world with questions that would awaken meaningful dialogue with others—including parents and children. And these questions are just as relevant today as they were in the ancient world.
Socrates believed that clear thinking and self-examination could lead to truth and subsequently the good life. In Plato’s “Apology” Socrates is famously quoted saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” But despite his own self-examination, when questioning others, Socrates would start from a position of ignorance, stating, “I know that I know nothing.” He shirked the role of “expert” and accepted a more collaborative position with the person questioned. Subsequently, Socrates avoided the typical resistance that occurred in debate. His questions would instead stimulate self-examination, and ultimately help others “wake-up” from ignorance. (Stumpf, 1993)
As parents, we are accustomed to the role of “expert” in regard to our children. We usually know what is best for them, we know what will benefit them in the long run, and we can often anticipate the poor choices our children tend to make (usually the same ones they made last week). But as most of us have discovered, imparting our “expertise” (or telling our children what to think) is not always received warmly. So how do we impart our wisdom as parents and yet avoid such resistance? The Socratic approach can help us with this dilemma.
Benefits of Socratic Questions in Parenting
- Socratic questions help parents avoid unnecessary debates with children or teens about what is best for them.
- Socratic questions encourage children and teens take a more collaborative role in problem-solving.
- Socratic questions exercise a child or teen’s critical thinking skills
- Children and teens can feel more confident making decisions on their own when they exercise the use of Socratic questions.
- Socratic questions can help parents avoid lectures and repeating themselves to children ad nauseum.
Types of Socratic Questions in Parenting
Richard Paul and Linda Elder suggest nine different types of Socratic Questions. Their book, “The Thinker’s Guide to the Art of Socratic Questioning” (2006) discusses these different Socratic questions and how we can make use of them in our daily lives. For each of their nine types of questions I’ve offered an example of how they can be applied to parenting.
(1) Questions of Clarification
“I understand you don’t want to go, but why do you think it’s important that you go to your brother’s recital?”
(2) Questions that Probe Purpose
“What’s your goal in this conflict?”
(3) Questions that Probe Assumptions
“Why do you think I took your cell phone from you? What do you think you need to do to get your phone back?”
(4) Questions that Probe Information, Reasons, Evidence, and Causes
“I saw C’s and D’s on your last progress report… but you’re confident that you now have A’s and B’s? What’s led to your confidence?”
(5) Questions about Viewpoints or Perspectives
“How do you suspect John’s parents would respond to you, if you were their son and in this same situation?”
(6) Questions that Probe Implications or Consequences
“So if I stop reminding you to brush your teeth, what do you think will happen?”
(7) Questions about the Question
“I’m curious, why did this question about your allowance come up now?”
(8) Questions that Probe Concepts
“It seems unfair to you? Do you believe everything should be fair between you and your brothers? How should we handle situations that are “unfair” for your bothers?”
(9) Questions that Probe Inferences and Interpretations
“I’m a mean daddy for taking the scissors away? Can you think of any other reasons why I took the scissors from you?”
For a more complete list of examples of these Socratic questions… click here.
Risks of Using Socratic Questions
- The use of Socratic Questions requires a lot of practice, patience, and emotional self-control. Be patient with yourself and your kids. If you feel upset, take a breather before starting any kind of dialogue.
- If performed incorrectly, Socratic Questions can sound condescending. If the answer is too obvious or provocative, or said in a “know-it-all” tone, a child may feel belittled.
- Socratic questions may be too cumbersome for certain situations. Sometimes a quick reminder or directive may be the way to go!
- A child doesn’t always know how to reason through a Socratic question. Too many questions (or follow-up questions) can also frustrate a child. Socratic questions are great, but if your child isn’t getting it, then move on. We want to keep it simple for kids.
- Parents may mistake leading questions for Socratic questions, expecting their child to respond with the “correct” answer.
- In contrast to more open-ended Socratic questions, leading questions can cause kids to feel trapped. Remember to approach the questioning from a position of ignorance (set aside what your already know for the time being), and then follow your child’s train of thought.
- Socratic questioning does not replace meaningful time with your children. Time with your kids builds the trust they need to examine their lives.
Difficulty Level of Using Socratic Questions
Socratic questions requires moderate difficulty to use and high difficulty to master. But don’t underestimate the benefits of these questions for parenting and for your own self-examination. You too may awaken to truth and “the good life” when you’ve taken the time to question your own purposes, assumptions, and perspectives.
For more information on the method of Socratic questioning visit: www.criticalthinking.org
9 types of Socratic Questions. (n.d.). Retrieved September 04, 2016, from http://www.umich.edu/~scps/html/probsolv/strategy/cthinking.htm
Biography.com Editors (n.d.). Retrieved September 04, 2016, from http://www.biography.com/people/socrates-9488126
Ellis, J. J. (n.d.). First family: Abigail and John.
Massie, R. K. (1980). Peter the Great: His life and world. New York: Knopf.
Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2006). The thinker’s guide to the art of Socratic questioning. Dillon Beach, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking.
Stumpf, S. E. (1993). Socrates to Sartre: A history of philosophy. New York: McGraw-Hill.
THE ADAMS TYRANNY. (n.d.). Retrieved September 04, 2016, from http://www.andrewtobias.com/newcolumns/030921.html