When will parents learn to stop asking silly questions?

I did it again. My son had teased his sister one too many times, and I heard myself holler, "When will you stop doing that?"

Gasp. Despite the fact that I knew better, I was asking my child a pointless rhetorical question (PRQ).

You know what I mean, those exasperated "parading their authority" questions that adults fired at us as kids when they were ready to throttle us.

Especially because I so despised these grown-up rantings, it is humbling to learn that when I'm pushed to my absolute limit, I resort to them, too.

We kids knew our elders didn't really want answers to those questions that were born purely of frustration. They just wanted to vent, and heaven help you if you were foolish enough to respond.

But times have changed, thanks in part to us and our rowdy dismemberment of authority during the 1960s and '70s. So I guess we're the ones to blame for the fact that our democratic, indulged children don't even know that there is such a thing as a PRQ.

Given this modern climate, it's foolhardy to employ our parents' knee-jerk response when kids are driving us crazy, but out pop the inane questions anyway. Recognize any of these?

"How many times have I told you...." So, did my parents really want me to keep score? Offer the running tally? That's what my children think. When my teenage daughter left her shoes and book bag on the sofa for the umpteenth time, these words spewed from my mouth before I even realized it.

She furrowed her brow and answered seriously, "Probably a dozen."

"Why in the world did you do that?" As if impetuous kids really analyze options and consequences before doing something brainless: The game's over, I have this bat in my hand, and I'm carelessly swinging it around. I wonder if I can knock out MacKenzie's front teeth if I swing the bat just so?

A logical explanation is what we want, what our parents wanted, but the real answer is there is no explanation for the wacko behavior that comes with kids. The two just seem to go together.

"Are you listening to me?" The vacant eyes, the glazed stare must have been the first clue. When I was a child, this question was my cue to snap to attention before the spanking with the wooden spoon.

With my own kids, "Are you listening to me?" elicits maybe one millisecond of actual eye contact before they slip back into their lecture-induced comatose state. Perhaps this is because I don't believe in spanking. No painful consequence to wake them up. Hmm.

"You don't listen very well, do you?" My fifth-grade science teacher's favorite query, this question never made much sense to me.

The net result would serve as an excellent example of classical conditioning. Pavlov's dogs salivated; kids tune out when adults talk, because we've told them time and again that they don't listen. So they end up actually being obedient by not listening, right?

"Do you have to do that?" My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Watson, reserved this question exclusively for nose-pickers. Since we were all guilty of this misdemeanor at one time or another, I can't even hear this phrase without a niggling sense of shame.

Of course, we didn't have to pick our noses, burp, wear our hair long, or listen to loud rock music. We wanted to, well, thumb our noses (sorry, Mrs. Watson) at propriety by driving nearby adults crazy.

Kids still do this, and it still works, but I sense a distressing lack of shame among this current crop, as if they don't even know they are behaving inappropriately. Rebels without a clue. What fun is that?

"What is your problem?" The granddaddy of all humiliating interrogations when I was a child. I personally wouldn't dare ask this rhetorical question to anyone over 5 these days. These kids watch Bart Simpson, Jerry Springer, and "Southpark"; they are de facto experts on angst and dysfunction.

Where to stop? This list could go on forever: When will you learn? How can you stand (that)? Who do you think you are?

These questions and the accompanying lectures were as much a part of our growing up as eating kindergarten paste and giggling through the sixth-grade maturation film. So we're caught in the middle, between the habits of our upbringing and today's kids, who tremble not at all at authority.

Despite our view of ourselves as enlightened parents, PRQs still survive, like those useless strands of hair on toes. Why in the world do we act this way?

When will we ever learn? Wait, let me rephrase that....

Sharon Ellsworth asks questions of the seven children at her house in Grantsville, Utah.

Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting experiences, send an e-mail to: home@csps.com.

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