Finding the Right Question


We, as human beings, are inseparable from our culture.  The culture in which we are raised, the culture of our ancestry, the culture of our families, the culture of our institutions.  There are many definitions, many meanings.

As adults, we can and do make conscious choices to deviate, of course.  For example, perhaps the culture of our family of origin was characterized by violence.  We may now be choosing otherwise, and rejecting that part of our culture.  And yet that cultural foundation remains with us, and the energy that we have to put into resisting it or intentionally choosing otherwise will always be greater, especially in moments of stress, than it would be for someone whose family culture was far more peaceful and collaborative.

Urie Bronfenbrenner, a noted developmental theorist and academic,highlighted these connections via his Ecological Systems Theory of development.

ecological-modelIn the Ecological Model, children cannot be seen as separate entities, and their development and behaviors and characteristics cannot be viewed as independent from all of the systems in which they live.   All levels of influence matter.

These principles are something that I am deeply committed to–they guide all of the work that I do.  There are few pieces of work that enter my consciousness as readily, even after more than 30 years, than his work comparing the views, attitudes, and drawings of children in the 1960’s in the United States and what was then the USSR, particularly the example he would give of their drawings done in response to the song “May there always be sunshine”, may there always be sunshinewhose lyrics were written by a four year old boy.  (Many Americans know this song as a Raffi or Pete Seeger song, not knowing that the original song comes from Russia.)   (If you want to know more about this work, see Bronfenbrenner’s 1970 book “Two Worlds of Childhood.”)

As these all great research and developmental theory, we see these things most clearly when we experience them in a direct and personal context.  I don’t think of it often, but my experiences over the last day or two have brought all of these ideas right back to the front of my mind.

I will explain.

As most of the readers of this blog know, I facilitate online parenting groups, which, by their very nature, are places where people come and ask questions, hoping for answers that, in my case, reflect a commitment to respectful, non-punitive parenting.  It even happens on this blog sometimes.  People–maybe you?–leave comments, asking questions, perhaps challenging the ideas that I have written about, perhaps seeking a way to understand how it applies to your situation, perhaps seeking a direct answer.

This is where it gets complicated, y’all.

This is where it becomes about culture.  How culture has inextricably shaped who I am, both as a person and as a professional.   How culture explains why I handle things the way that I do, why I answer (or don’t answer) questions the way that I do.  How I so insistently push parents and professionals to “reframe” their questions and concerns.

This frustrates many of my readers.  I understand that.  You want an answer.  You want to ask a question (the prototypical question being one which begins “how do I get my child to…”) and get an answer (“here’s how you get your child to…”)  And what you get back from me, sometimes infuriatingly, is a subtle (or not so subtle) refusal to answer that question, accompanied by a challenge to ask a different question, ideally one that I can answer, or am inclined to answer….and which, conveniently, will inevitably lead to the answer to your original question as well.

It drives some people crazy.

And yet, when it’s me that you’re choosing to ask, what you see is what you get.  So it seems only fair to explain what this is all about.  No, it’s not just to antagonize you.  I’m not in this to irritate people.

So, as is my way, let me tell you a little story.  Or a not so little story.

I was at a birthday party lunch yesterday.  Lots of Jewish people (yes, this matters.) A few not Jewish people.  It’s all good.  We all love one another.  Don’t worry.   As will happen in these settings, wonderful questions and vigorous discussions somehow naturally appeared.  Without belaboring the entire trajectory of that process, let me just say that it ended up with trying to define what “talmudic argument” or “talmudic thinking” is (something that is unique to Jewish culture, that’s why it’s important, like I said before.  People gave their many answers, their many definitions.  Some religious, some traditional, some long, some short, some complicated, some Reader’s Digest versions, all kinds of answers (that’s our way.)  But the question remained.  What does this mean?  And how is it relevant?

And now you’re asking what in the world this has to do with parenting or respectful parenting or the work that I do.  Trust me.  Stay tuned.  Keep reading. 

I took my stab at an answer, or more to the point, I offered up the answer as it would be given in my family or origin, a place where this answer was never linked to religion or faith or cultural practice, it was just “the way it is.”  It was the water in which I swam, I knew nothing else.  It was “the way to think”, as taught from birth–almost exclusively by modeling–by both of my somewhat hyperintellectual parents.

This is how you think about things.  That’s all there is to it.  See that “Microsystem” level in the chart up there?  Yeah.  That.

I was taught through stories, through argument, through analogies, through analysis, through a dogged passion for research, and a determination to question everything, always.  So, when it came my time, at the lunch yesterday, to offer my take on this way of thinking about things, I did what my father always did, and explained it in a story.  I offer this story, which my father told hundreds of times, in hope that it puts a frame around the work that I do with children, parents, teachers, and professionals.

[Disclaimer:  I feel certain that some of you may also know this story, or some version thereof.  You will read my version and you will say it’s not right, it doesn’t go that way.  That’s okay.  This is the version that my father told.  So it’s the version I use.  That’s how oral tradition works.  Don’t let it take you down if yours is different.  That’s good, too.]

So here’s the story my father always told:

In the old country (Eastern Europe, 19th century), a young man wanted very badly to study to attend yeshiva (religious school) to become a rabbi.  He had requested admission several times and he had been declined.  And yet he persisted (an excellent trait!)  On this most recent attempt, the chief rabbi that ran the school and made admissions decision decided to give him one last chance.  He told the young man that he would ask him a series of three questions (in order to ascertain whether the young man was well suited to this sort of endeavor).  The deal was:  if the young man answered even one of the questions correctly, he would be granted admission to study to become a rabbi…but if he did not answer any of the questions correctly, he would go away and not request admission again, acknowledging that this was not the right vocation for him.  The young man agreed.  The two of them sat down across from one another, and the rabbi began with the first question:

“Two men are cleaning a chimney.  When they are finished, one of their faces is clean and the other one’s face is dirty.  Which one washes his face?”

The young man was surprised at how simple and obvious this question seemed to be, and was gleeful at the idea that he would be admitted shortly.  He replied, “That’s very easy.  The one whose face is dirty would wash his face!”

The rabbi paused, and then explained that that was not the correct answer.  In fact, the one whose face was clean would wash his face.  Why?   Because when they emerged, they looked at one another.  The one whose face was dirty looked at the one whose face was clean and assumed his face must be clean, so he didn’t wash his face.  The one whose face was clean looked at the one whose face was dirty, and assumed his face must also be dirty, so he washed his face.

One question down.  That’s okay.  There are still other chances.  The young man asked for his second question, certain that he would do better.  And the rabbi offered the second question:

“Two men are cleaning a chimney.  When they are finished, one of their faces is clean and the other one’s face is dirty.  Which one washes his face?”

At this second question, the young man was confused.  Hadn’t the rabbi just given him the answer?  Could he possibly be making it this easy for him to gain admission?  He smiled with confidence and said “You just told me!  The one whose face is clean!”

The rabbi shook his head.  No, unfortunately, that is not the correct answer.  The correct answer is that they would both wash their faces.  When the one whose face is dirty sees the one whose face is clean washing his face, he realizes that the only reason the man with the clean face would be washing his face was because he looked at his dirty face and thought his own face must be dirty as well.  So his face must be dirty and he joins his co-worker in washing his face.

At this, the prospective student is starting to get frustrated, but he still feels optimistic, and he requests the last question, his last chance at admission, which he wants so very badly.  He is a bit worried and concerned, but certain he can get the last question right.  So the rabbi asks:

“Two men are cleaning a chimney.  When they are finished, one of their faces is clean and the other one’s face is dirty.  Which one washes his face?”
At this, the young man pauses.  He is uncertain what to say.  He has been given two answers so far.  Could it be one of those?   What is he to say?  Finally, he gives in and he says “They both wash their face, for the reasons you just explained.”
And with this answer, they reached the end of their journey.  The question had been answered incorrectly three times, and, in keeping with their agreement, the student would leave and not seek admission again.  Dejectedly but with deference, he got ready to leave, but he waited for the rabbi to explain what the correct answer had been this third time.  And the rabbi explained:  “If two men clean a chimney together, how is it possible that one of them could come out with a clean face?”
The correct answer, the answer that would have gained the young man admission, even on the first question, would have been to question the logic of the very question itself, not to try to answer an illogical question.  That, and that alone would have shown the sort of thinking that would have made him suitable for admission.

The moral of this story (just in case) is that there is no value at all in answering the wrong question, even if it appears to be the obvious question at hand.  We must dig deeper, and make sure that we are answering the right question, the more complex question, the more relevant question, and not simply take a question at face value and seek to answer it.  This is the mark of critical thinking–questioning the question, not simply seeking the answer.  (If you prefer, there is a wonderful and very similar version of this story told here.)

In my work with parents and professionals, my goal is to promote critical thinking through a lens of compassion and development, not to tell people what to do…it’s not unlike the “teach a man to fish” saying.  If a parent coach or a child development expert or a guru answers your question, you will always need them to answer your question.  If they help you to formulate the right questions and to think critically–in this case, about children and parenting–you will not need them.  You will make sound, respectful, peaceful, thoughtful, confident, decisions that work for you and for your child and family and within your own cultural context.  Because after all, every child–and indeed, every one of you–exists only in the context of your own history, systems, families, and culture.

Here’s the thing, my friends.  The question is exponentially more important than the answer. Questioning the question is exponentially more important than that.  The question is rarely “how do I get my child to…”  The question is “what is going on in the connection between me and my child that has led to this struggle, and what is my part in that?”

einstein questions

And here’s where it comes back to you and me, in our work together to keep children visible and to promote respectful and peaceful relationships with children in our homes and in the larger world.  This is the way that I think.  This is who I am. It is the air that I have breathed and the water I swim in since…well, since before I was born and for the 59 years since.  I cannot think otherwise.  Now you know.  I cannot promise to think otherwise.  When you ask me a question, I have no choice–I have to examine whether it is actually the question that needs an answer.  For you, that looks like a request to reframe, or to clarify, or to give more details, or to rewrite the question from your child’s perspective and in their voice, or maybe it looks like a suggestion that you do something that feels to you completely beside the point of your original question.  I promise you, it isn’t beside the point.

I can’t promise to think differently.  I can promise to work with you to respectfully explore your questions–and mine–about children and parenting and respectful caregiving.  I cannot and will not promise quick answers. I  cannot promise an “instruction book.”  I cannot and will not break things down into “the right way” and “the wrong way.”  That’s not the way it works when it comes to individuals, relationships, and culture.

I  do not seek to be the one who gives you answers.  I seek to be the one–or one of the ones–who listens very carefully and critically and offers you tools to find your own answers.  I seek to be one who supports you in finding the path to your own answers.  And more importantly, I seek to be the one who helps you find your own answers to the right questions.

I’m ready.  Always.   If you’re in, I’m your gal.




4 thoughts on “Finding the Right Question

  1. This is a amazing. So excited to have discovered your writing and starting a journey of exploring the right questions.

  2. Hi Robin! What do you think about Bronfenbrenner’s transition into Bioecological Model? He kinda renounced the Ecological Systems Theory in the late ’90s and emphasized more on ‘person (individual)’. Context still matters, but not as much as he firstly claimed. Want to hear your thoughts on that, if possible 🙂

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