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“It is not the answer that enlightens but the question.” – Eugene Ionesco
Twenty years ago, I would have told you that the secret to being a good parent was in having the answers. In my mind, a good mom knew what to do no matter what. From a massive diaper failure or a sudden fever, to a fussy baby between the hours of 3:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon, to be the kind of mom I wanted to be, I needed to have the answers.
Today, in a full reversal, I firmly believe that being a good parent is not about having the answers at all. The secret to being a good parent, I believe, is not just having questions, but being comfortable having them for a very, very long time. Whether navigating the teen years, a college search, or the astounding act of watching your child become an adult, I have found that resting easy (or at least somewhat easily) with questions – “Will we get through this still loving one another?” “Will she find the right school?” “What will he be when he grows up?” – is the key.
My husband and I began our shift away from being answer-dependent relatively early on in our parenting “careers” and I need to give the credit for this to him. In what was a vestige of his law school education, my husband’s knee-jerk response to questions from our children – “Why did the dinosaurs become extinct?”, “How do you get this Barbie shirt on?”, “What should I be for Halloween?” – was “What do you think?” This response led to interesting, often hilarious, discussions with our children that we never would have had if he’d simply answered their questions. It was easy for me to follow suit.
As the kids grew up, and their questions got harder and the answers less clear, we felt fortunate to have established our pattern of trusting that questions were a reliable and effective parenting tool. Even when their math homework was totally unintelligible to me, I found that my questions drew them to the answers as they taught me. When we were literally scratching our heads to come up with a consequence to an infraction that left us speechless, we found that asking the child for his or her suggestions yielded some powerful ideas. And when there simply were no answers – whether because of a broken heart or shattered feelings – questions were still an effective bridge to healing conversations.
While it’s pretty easy to confess that the only thing I have to offer is questions with regards to math homework, bigger, hotter, more critical parenting moments can still send me spinning off in search of answers or easy fixes as I did when my babies were actually babies. When I catch myself flailing around for answers that truly only my child can find, I need to draw myself back into a trusting relationship with questions. Doing so can be profoundly difficult.
In these moments, I am grateful to more than my husband for teaching me the gifts of parenting by the Socratic method. In these moments, I am deeply grateful for my time on my yoga mat where I have practiced the art of living with questions for countless hours. “Why could I do that yesterday, but not today?” “How does that work?” “Why can he do that but she can’t?” “Will I ever be able to do that?” “Can I be happy not being able to do that for now?” “Will I be injured forever?” “What did I do to heal myself the last time?” And a million others.
Over the years, I have learned that when I approach my practice with questions, my time on my mat is more rewarding and more centering. I have learned in my practice that having questions keeps me curious, whereas thinking I have the answers keeps me fairly closed off. Having questions keeps me open to the possibility of learning new things, to growth and to change. On the other hand, thinking I know all the answers shuts down these same possibilities.
In much the same way, I believe my role as a parent is serving as practice for being comfortable with questions for the rest of my life. I trust that, just as the questions I have navigated while raising three children were a mixed bag, millions of small questions and a handful of “doozies” still lie ahead of me. I also trust that I will continue to work to be comfortable with these questions. For it is within the questions that growth and change and possibility lie.
Keep on asking …