My child stole his teacher’s brownie. How and what came next…

Marcilieconsequences, discipline, Kind and Firm Parenting, long term parenting, Parenting w/Positive Discipline, Positive Parenting, Problem Solving, Responsibility4 Comments

Chapter 1: Mom Gets Dreaded Phone Call From School

I was at work in the middle of the day when my phone began to ring. I looked down and noted the caller’s ID: it was my child’s school. Naturally, my heart began to race, butterflies fluttered in my gut, and my eyes got a bit wider. Do schools know that this happens to parents? I think so, because normally when I pick up the phone, the first thing they say is, “don’t worry, everything’s OK.”

But not this time. The head of school was calling because, he said, “your son is hiding in the bathroom and won’t come out.” He continued, “We had a faculty lunch today, and your son stole Ms. Johnson’s (name is changed to protect the innocent) brownie right off her plate, and her plate was right on her desk. When she confronted him, he ran to the bathroom and is still there now. I’m sure he will come out eventually, but just wanted to let you know.”

And then, my heart rate increased even more. Butterflies multiplied. Breathing got shorter and eyes even wider.

Chapter 2:  Mom Wants to Teach a Lesson

“Yikes! My 6th grade son is a thief!” I thought. “What should I do to teach him a lesson?”

In my moment of panic, I considered eliminating his allowance, taking away his computer time, and making him write a 5-page apology note, delivered in person, to his whole English class. “That’ll teach him a lesson,” I thought. “He needs to pay for his mistakes.”

Fortunately, three hours went by before I saw him after school. I’d had time to calm down and access my more creative, rational brain. I had time to consider the lesson I hoped he’d learn, which was that stealing is dishonest, that it’s unfair to other people, and that it feels terrible when you do it. I also hoped he’d learn how to repair his mistake, and make amends.

What I really wanted was for him to learn from his mistakes, so that he’d have the courage and compass to make better choices in the future. “What will help these lessons sink in?” I wondered. And that’s when I remembered Curiosity Questions.

Chapter 3: Curiosity Questions

Curiosity questions (from Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen) usually (but not always) begin with the words, “What” and “How.”

In all three of my coaching training programs, curiosity questions (AKA “powerful” or “open-ended” questions) are a featured coaching tool because:

  • They spur people to think: about cause and effect, possible outcomes, and possible solutions
  • They invite a person to listen to and draw from their inner wisdom
  • They create a sense of ownership because the answers to these questions come from within
  • They help people explore the consequences of decisions
  • They create trust in both oneself and in the asker (the implication is that “the asker wouldn’t ask if she didn’t think I had an answer – she must trust that I do”)

There are many ways to use curiosity questions. As an alternative to commands, curiosity questions help a child feel more intrinsically motivated to follow through with simple tasks as in the following examples:

Traditional Approach


Using Curiosity Questions


“Stop playing your computer

“What was our agreement about
computer games?”

“Brush your teeth”

“What flavor of toothpaste would
you like to use tonight?”

“Get your shoes on now”

“How quickly can you get your
shoes on?”

“Stop fighting with your brother”

“How can you and your brother
solve this problem?”

“Do your homework”

“What is your plan for getting
your homework done?”

“Hurry up or you’ll miss the bus!”

“What can you do to be sure to
catch the bus on time?”

Curiosity questions can also be used in more complex situations (like the brownie theft incident) to help children explore the consequences of their own actions…

Chapter 4: The Brownie Incident, Continued

When I picked my son up from school later that day, I was ready. I started with empathy because connection helps a child feel safe and understood, and thus more open to honest dialogue. (Read more on Connection Before Correction, a Positive Discipline tool, here.)

Here’s how it went down:

Me: “Hi, son. I heard about the brownie incident. That brownie must have looked really good.”

Son: “Oh, Mom, it did. You never pack sweets in my lunch and it was just too hard to resist!”

Me: “Hmmm. It was too hard. How do you feel about the whole thing?”

Son: “I’m humiliated. I never want to go back to school again.”

Me: “That was really embarrassing for you. Ugh. Hmmm…Well, what do you want to do now?”

Son: Long pause…“I guess I should write her an apology.”

Me: “I bet she’d appreciate that.”

Son: “And can we stop at Safeway on the way home so I can get her some replacement brownies?”

Me: “Great idea. Let’s do that.”

And we did.

He didn’t need a scowl from me, a punishment, or even a lecture to teach him a lesson. He knew that what he did was wrong. What he did need: a safe and encouraging space to feel his own feelings, explore the consequences of his actions, and find a solution. And because it came from within, this kind of lesson is more likely to stick.

We did get replacement brownies and he did write a (very short) apology note. I was happy with the outcome. Lesson learned! If this sounds a little bit fairy tale, let me assure you that it really did happen. And, there are many more times when I forget to ask questions and jump to the lecture and “consequence” instead. I’ve written about those times too.

Chapter 5: Why to Avoid “Why” Questions

My coaching training programs also taught me to avoid asking “why” questions. This is because “why” questions tend to invite defensiveness. For example:

Adult: “Why didn’t you follow through on your homework like you were supposed to?”  

Child: “I’ll give you 10 reasons…” (and still not follow through)


Adult: “Why did you hit your sister?”

Child: “Because she’s an idiot and deserved to be hit.”

Very young children often do not really understand why they did what they did. When we ask “why?” we push them into a corner and they may just make up an answer to save face.

Why questions invite explanations (defensiveness)

What and How questions invite exploration (openness and curiosity)

Now, tone of voice can make a huge difference. You can ask a “why” question with a curious and open tone of voice and it may work well. On the other hand, you can ask “what” and “how” questions with judgment and kids will read that, too.

For example, I could have asked my son, “What is wrong with you?” or “How could you be so stupid?” These questions do start with What and How but are clearly not curious!

Here’s a challenge for you…

For the next week, notice how often you ask “Why” questions, give commands, or tell children what they should think and feel. Try to use curiosity questions instead. Notice what shifts when you do.

Download this 1-page Curiosity Questions Handout from Lois Ingber, a Positive Discipline Lead Trainer.

Good luck!

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For more information about upcoming Positive Discipline classes with Marcilie, go here.

4 Comments on “My child stole his teacher’s brownie. How and what came next…”

  1. Hi Marcilie,

    Thanks for this article. I’m curious what you would advise when a child responds with “I don’t know” responses to “what” and “how” curiosity questions? It’s hard for me to know what to say when I don’t get any feedback. He just shuts down. I have to guess or put words in his mouth for what he may be thinking, which leaves things feeling very unresolved. He’s not a verbal kid and he doesn’t like to draw (I know some experts offer drawing as an alternative way to express themselves), so I often don’t know how to reach him in a constructive way.

    1. Hi CM, thanks for your question. I’m wondering how old your child is who responds with “I don’t know.” If very young (2-3 or even 4), it may be that they actually don’t know. In this case, I would still ask the what and how question because doing so sends a message, “I trust that you might know. I am interested in your thoughts.” If the child responds with “I don’t know,” you can offer some suggestions and let your child choose from your short list.

      If the child is older, and the “I don’t know” response sounds kind of snarky, then it may be that your tone of voice in asking the what/how question conveys judgment, sarcasm, or irritation (or something else that is not inviting.) Or it may be that your child doesn’t believe you are actually interested in their answer. In these cases it might help to pay more attention to your tone of voice, be more open to your child having an answer that is different from your own, or work on building trusting, loving relationship in other ways/times (special time or doing fun things together.)

      Finally, please know that “what and how” questions are not always the best tool to use in a situation. There are many other ways to invite reflection or cooperation. This is but one tool in the Positive Discipline toolbox. I hope this was helpful!

  2. Hi Marcilie,

    Within the last hour we just received an email from our daughter’s school that she stole something, approximately the value of a brownie :/

    This is brand new territory for us, and knowing we haven’t the first idea what to do (feeling really lid flipped) I came back to your site for some direction. Low and behold this article!

    Tonight we’ll take a deep breath, get in the right frame of mind by reading this together and get curious with her rather than making matters worse than they need to be.

    Thanks for the wisdom!


    1. Ah, so glad to have been down that path for you! Do your best to stay in curiosity! and LMK how it goes ( :

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