Parenting: Curiosity > Understanding

May 18, 2022

Parenting: Curiosity > Understanding

Written by Cari Newman, Parent Coach

As parents, we strive to understand our children. We try to figure out what they're thinking and why they do what they do. This is a relatively new phenomenon. I was lucky that my parents tried to understand me, even when I was a moody teenager. Some of my friend's parents didn't even seem to try. And one generation earlier, the concept of trying to understand your child was largely unheard of. A child's job was to recognize their place, fit themselves into their family's and society's expectations, and look good while doing it.

I think seeking to understand our children is WAY better than the approach of earlier generations. The problem is that there is an implication that it's actually possible. There is a further implication hidden inside that one: only after we understand our children's thoughts, motivations, and goals can we support or guide them.

Here's the thing: We might never, ever understand our offspring. We might never get how seismically different their childhoods are from those we lived. We might never comprehend the electronic fishbowl in which they are growing up or grasp the pressure they live under starting when they are very young. There are so many differences that real understanding might constantly elude us.

There are, however, two concepts that I come back to again and again in my roles as a veteran teacher, parent, and Parent Coach. These concepts are even more impactful and achievable than understanding. These concepts are curiosity and radical empathy.

Imagine this familiar scenario: Your child is melting down. Maybe they haven't been getting enough sleep, they're going through a growth spurt, or there's been a change to their schedule. When they're like this, any little thing could tip them over the edge. Then, the final straw: their sibling eats the last cookie, they can't find a school notebook, or the one pair of pajamas they will consent to wear is in the wash. And now they are enraged, having a tantrum, unraveling.

When my parents were little, they would have gotten a "talking to" about how lucky they are to have cookies at all, how they need to be responsible and keep track of their things, or how some kid somewhere probably doesn't even have pajamas. The shame-fest often ended with some version of "If you keep this up, you won't see a cookie/notebook/pajama again for a year."

As an enlightened parent, you understand that your child is exhausted and off-kilter. You might even relate to the particular sadness that is having your heart set on a treat, losing something important, or wanting to wear one particular thing that's not available. Instead of talking AT your child, you set out to speak TO them about why they are upset. You might take away the sting by saying, "We can bake again tomorrow," encourage them to calm down by saying, "I'll help you look when you calm down," or distract them with offers of other things, like, "Hey, these clean and soft pajamas have puppies!"

Those are all evolved approaches and are eons ahead of generations past. But instead of finding a way to fix the situation for your child, trying to talk them out of being upset, or distracting them, imagine the power that curiosity could bring to the situation. Curiosity might make you wonder, "What is this really about?" Yes, they are tired, and yes, they are off schedule, but this is a BIG reaction to a small problem. Perhaps something happened at school that you didn't know about, or they have some unexplored worry plaguing them.

After you get curious, it's time to accept whatever your child says as their truth. Even if you think it's no big deal. Even if you believe they misinterpreted a situation. Whatever your child is going through at that moment is very real to them. You don't have to understand it or agree; you just have to know that something really hard happened earlier, so when cookie/notebook/pajama-gate unfolded, it was just too much. This is not a moment to correct their thinking or teach them a life lesson. This is a moment for radical empathy.

Here's how it might play out in real life: You hear escalating voices, and before you even reach the other room, your child is on the floor sobbing with BIG feelings.

As you approach your child, take a deep breath and say some calming words to yourself. This is when I remind myself to be here right now and this will not last forever. Get on the ground next to your child and just sit. If they can tolerate physical touch when they are upset, you can put your arm around them or rub their back. If not, just share space. (Note: Unless someone is bleeding, avoid entering the room and asking, “What happened?” This is a way to get nowhere fast.)

If your child tries to engage you with a lot of language before they are calm, tell them, “I’m not going anywhere. I’ll still be here in a few minutes when you are ready to talk. You don’t have to rush to talk yet. I’ll be right here.”

Be curious. When they have calmed down say softly, "Wow, my love. You seem really upset. Want to tell me about it?" You will be SHOCKED by what they sometimes offer up with very little effort on your part once they know you are listening. It might turn out that it's not about the cookie at all, but about their sibling ALWAYS getting extra treats, and the resentment that has been building up for a while.

Practice radical empathy for what your child is going through. Resist the temptation to tell your child why it's not true, and don't rush to fix the situation. Reflect back what they are sharing by saying things like, "You think your sibling always gets extra. Hmmm. I'm guessing that feels really unfair."

Rinse and repeat as needed until your child has released the big feelings.

Notice that during this entire exchange, you don’t offer your opinion or advice. This takes practice.

Some parents wonder if all this curiosity and empathy doesn't just encourage their children to keep going on and on about all the things that upset them. The answer is, yes, sometimes they will start listing ALL the injustices they've ever suffered. This is likely a bid for connection with you. If this happens, give them an ear for as long as possible, then gently say, "Sounds like you have a lot on your mind. Want to find some time later/tomorrow to talk some more?" This supportive language helps them understand that you are there for whatever big feelings they might have and that you care about their emotional well-being.

As they start to trust that you are really listening, they won't feel as much need to go on and on. When they know you have an open ear and an open heart that’s all they will need to feel seen, heard, and supported. If they ask for your opinion, you can offer it. If they don’t ask, you can say, “Let me know if you want me to share my thoughts or just listen.” Then wait.

Like generations past, we might never really understand our children. However, if we can display curiosity and empathy toward them, even when feelings are high, we can help them understand that we want to connect on an even deeper level than understanding. And in the end, this connection will bring us closer than basic understanding ever could.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach in parenting, and the target is constantly in motion. No matter how confused, exhausted, or disheartened you feel, there is hope and support for your family. If you’d like to work with Cari one-on-one on any parenting issues, please reach out to

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