The 4-Word Question Every Parent Needs to Know

monkeybusiness/DepositphotosSource: monkeybusiness/Depositphotos

As we’re a homeschooling family, my 14-year-old son’s course load looks very different from his same-age peers moving through a traditional education system. And I’ll be honest—the freedom that comes with our alternative approach can sometimes cause me anxiety ( Am I doing enough for him? Is he getting what he needs? Will he be ready for what's next?) .

But after moving through that familiar angst, I remind myself that this untraditional path may actually make it easier for me to support my son in successfully launching some day. Because no matter what our school schedule or subjects look like, my big-picture goal remains the same: to help my son continue to grow in the areas of self-knowledge and self-regulation.

In my thinking, developing those skills, and as a result, strengthening his executive functioning skills, far outweighs book smarts or good grades or any other metric we typically use to define qualities of successful people.

My hunch is this goes for every parent, no matter how a child is wired. In this business of raising humans, perhaps our most important practice should be regularly zooming out from the daily challenges and focus on that uber goal.

To work toward that goal with my differently wired son, I’m relying on one simple, four-word question. I ask him this question when he does something he thought he couldn’t, or he pushes through an unpleasant task, or gets himself re-regulated after being triggered.

That question is this: How'd you do that?

"If you have never been hated by your child you have never been a parent. " - Bette Davis

For example, if my son gets gets distracted in the middle of an online class but gets himself back on track without any input from me...

Awesome! How'd you do that?

Or he tells me he was feeling really annoyed about something but made the conscious choice to not let it ruin his day...

That's great! How'd you do that?

Or maybe he turns off his computer after only one request and in a calm way...

You got off your computer with no drama. How'd you do that?

Just so I’m clear—my son doesn't respond to each of these queries with a detailed explanation of his neurological process. Often times I don't get much more than an "I don't know... I just did!"

But sometimes , he thinks about it for a minute and comes back with a thoughtful reply.

I realized if I got my work done first then I could do what I really wanted to do.

or

I decided that I wanted to have a better afternoon so I changed my thinking.

or

I realized I could just save my game and finish it tomorrow.

When he says things like that, I know that he's starting to make connections on his own about who he is and what he needs. And that’s what I'm going for.

My hope, and what the research shows, is that the more invested he is in understanding his own limits, challenges, and conative style (how he actually does things), he'll be better positioned to make choices that reflect his own way of moving through the world.

Turn taking. Help all members of the family take turns talking and listening. Children find it much easier to talk when there are fewer interruptions.

That's the goal anyway. But for now, I’ll keep asking that four-word question. Until the day comes when I won't have to ask it anymore...