Michael Bruce

Michael Bruce


Don’t take the bait! Philosophy and/of power struggles

Should some questions be ignored?

Posted Feb 01, 2011

One of the hardest things about working with youth, especially at-risk and emotional disturbed youth, is deciding which questions to answer. Regardless of your official role, when you work with youth, you are an educator and role model. The hallmark of great teaching is engaged students-students who ask clarifying questions and want to learn more.  Many teachers employ the Socratic Method by asking a series of questions intended to reveal contradictions and eliminate tacit assumptions.

Socrates was the wisest, so said the oracles, because he was aware of his own ignorance. This is why Socrates' method is not concerned with deriving the correct answer to a question, but with exposing the ignorance of the interlocutor. Questions were Socrates' power. His carefully crafted and seemingly innocuous queries would lead to the eventual mental implosion of the participant. So you think you know what justice is, eh? Let me ask you a few questions. 

One of the important distinctions one has to make when working with youth is determining if their questions are intended to learn something (facts), or if they are trying to draw you into a power struggle.  "When is lunch?" "How do I log into my email account?" "Can you help me with this?" These are straightforward questions heard throughout the day.

Identifying questions that lead into power struggles is much harder to do. These questions often come in rapid succession as someone begins to escalate into a crisis. Repetition of the question(s) is a key indicator of the intention combined with other contextual information and body language, tone, etc. Classic examples would be, "Why does he get to do that and I don't?" or simply an endless chain of "Why?"

Why do youth take this approach? Because it works. Many youth have phenomenal success using power struggles to manipulate people into getting what they want. Youth will also often engage in power struggles to avoid doing something. Initiating power struggles is a learned behavior that is often employed by youth who are not aware of what they are doing. The challenge of responding is addressing the question-Johnny gets extra free time because he did x, y, z and you have not-without getting derailed. You must consistently respond to the question and redirect the youth to do what is expected of them:

"Can I play video games?"
"Not until you have finished your homework."
"I haven't played all week. Can I play and do homework afterwards?"
"You need to finish your homework first."
"How come you won't let me do anything I like to do?"
"You need to finish your homework."
"I don't get it. Why can't I play? Give me one good reason."
"You need to finish your homework and then you can play video games."

The crucial step is that once you state the reason or rule-in this scenario, finishing homework-do not then get into a debate by the youth's follow up questions. The hardest part is to stay on message and not get lured into an argument. If a youth is not doing what they are supposed to, state the rule and continue to redirect them to what they should be doing-and remember, it's not a conversation or negotiation. Your consistency will upset them at first because they will know the manipulation failed. Once it is clear that their "jailhouse lawyering" isn't going anywhere, they will follow through (or they will further escalate into the "refusal" stage, but that is another topic).

It is so tempting to take the bait. We're older, wiser, and we've got the answers, right? But that is missing the point. No explanation will satisfy their questions because they are trying to do something with their words. (In philosophy this would loosely be called a "performative.")

Practicing this technique allows you to ignore a question but not the individual. You may choose to talk about specific concerns after things have settled down, but your consistent response will help maintain appropriate boundaries.

About the Author

Michael Bruce

Michael Bruce works with at-risk youth and is the editor of College Sex - Philosophy for Everyone: Philosophers With Benefits (Wiley-Blackwell).

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