December 01, 2014

Six Principles for Questioning Children

Anne Graffam Walker

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Linguist Anne Graffam Walker said “the children who come into our courts cannot function adequately without our willingness to speak their language. The responsibility for clear communication has to be ours. Until we accept that responsibility, until we learn how the language of children and the language of adults differ, we will not be doing our jobs as effectively, or fairly, as we can.”

CLP is marking the third edition of Anne Graffam Walker’s Handbook on Questioning Children, by excerpting portions of it. The book is a reference guide organized around principles to keep in mind when questioning children. Read on to learn some of those principles: 

1. We do not question “children.”

We question one child at a time. Each child has his or her own unique growth pattern, and his or her own family experience which shaped the learning of language. Therefore, the child you are questioning may or may not fit the general characteristics of whatever topic is being discussed. That is markedly true in the case of children (or adults, for that matter) who have a developmental disability, come from a culture different from our own, or who have been maltreated. 

2. Children and adults do not speak the same language.

By the time children are about five years old, the language they speak sounds a lot like the one adults speak in their everyday lives. The assumption is made that adults and children are speaking the same language, but that is not so. Language learning is far from complete at age five. 

Some important aspects of grammatical knowledge are still being acquired at age 10 and later. For example, the ability to detect ambiguity caused by sentence structure (e.g., Flying planes can be dangerous) develops at about age 12. Certain communication skills, such as giving a complete and coherent account of a personal past event, may still be developing in the late teens. Other skills necessary for a fully competent performance in court, such as learning how to detect and defend against reasoning flaws in other people’s statements, may never be acquired even by adults.

3. Adult-like use of language does not always reflect adult-like linguistic or cognitive capabilities.

This is another way of saying that adults and children do not speak the same language. Language and cognition do not mature simultaneously. For that reason, children can appear to comprehend what we say and use words and sentences in an adult way. In reality, they may be operating on an entirely different level. The fact that children often use words before they really understand them can deceive us as to what they are actually thinking. This is especially true with concept words that express time, duration, space, age, kinship, and so on. For example, children can talk about yesterday (Q: When was yesterday? A: When I was little), and daddy (Q: Who is your daddy? What is his name? A: Name’s daddy) without having any real awareness of the relationships that words of that sort represent. 

4. Young children have a hard time attending to more than one or two things at once. 

“Q. Do you recall talking to her on the Sunday after they found—discovered something had happened to Doug and asking her, ‘Do you know Mark?’ and then saying, `That is who did it’? Do you remember telling her that?” (Question asked of a five-year-old witness during a murder trial.)

This question is long and involved. The ability to answer questions like that, or any question about some event or personal issue, requires keeping several balls in the air at once. The question itself, once processed, if it is processed, has to be held in working memory while the long-term memory is searched for the relevant information. 

Once the information is retrieved, it must be given to the questioner in a clear and appropriate way. The answer, if it is to be accurate, must also be monitored for speaker error and misunderstanding by the listener. All of this (and more) must be done in a physical environment that may or may not be familiar, and in an emotional environment that may or may not be comfortable. In a stimulus-rich and stressful environment, such as the forensic one, even adults have difficulty performing these tasks well, as anyone who has listened to grown-ups give testimony knows. 

For children, the burden of doing all of these things at once may prove too heavy. For the very young child, it is impossible. It is important, then, that in the forensic environment, the questions themselves be kept short and simple. Remembering the question from beginning to end is, after all, the first key task the child has to perform. Just as with an adult, the fewer ideas in a question, the greater the chances are of recall, processing, and thus of an accurate question/answer exchange.

5. Children will not always tell you they don’t understand you.

One expectation that adults rely on in carrying on conversations with each other is that each party will speak up if there is a perceived misunderstanding. That doesn’t always happen for many reasons, including unequal status or power. Faced with someone in authority, particularly someone who acts as if the listener ought to understand, even adults will let a misunderstanding pass. It should not be surprising that children, who are always in a one-down position vis-a-vis adults, are often reluctant to admit that they don’t understand.

There are at least two other reasons children may not alert adults to a lack of understanding. One, children may simply be unaware that they have the right to tell adults that they don’t understand. Two, they may think they understand a question when they do not. Like adults, children will assume they have understood an utterance if they can supply it with an interpretation. 

Children as old as 12 may not realize that an adult’s question or statement or instruction is actually not comprehensible, either because the utterance does not contain enough information for it to be processed or acted upon adequately, or because it is marred by complex or sloppy syntax. Even college-age students have been fooled into thinking that typical lawyers’ questions were easy to understand when in fact they were not. Vocabulary can also contribute to misunderstanding if children believe incorrectly that their meaning and the adult’s meaning for one or more words is the same.

6. Some families talk to each other; some families do not.

That statement is an exaggeration, of course, but the conversational habits of the families children come from can differ significantly. Because those habits shape language use and understanding, they might well affect the ability of children to tell you what they know.

 There are a number of viewpoints about how families can be distinguished linguistically. One that is relevant to the forensic questioning of children focuses on their use of what Bernstein (1972) identified as restricted or elaborated codes (“code” meaning a type of speech). Perhaps an easier way to think of these families would be as “talkers” and “pointers.” The codes are not mutually exclusive, but generally, families tend toward one or the other.

 “Talker” families, those using an elaborated code, are more apt to give objects names, articulate their thoughts, and attempt to make meaning clear. They tend to be specific, and in general, make few assumptions about the listener’s knowledge. 

“Pointer” (restricted code) families engage in less instruction with their children about the nature of objects and persons, use more pronouns, are less specific, and in their conversations, take more for granted about what the listener knows. Parents who have been identified by others as having a “high-elaborative” style, assist their children in recalling and recounting shared past experiences by confirming children’s correct memories and using questions as prompts to help build a more complete narrative. “Low-elaborative” parents tend not to offer that kind of support, give fewer prompts, and ask the same question repeatedly in attempts to get “correct” recitations. 

No one could expect all questioners of children to have the time or opportunity to inquire into the conversational habits of the families children come from. But these habits are not random, and they can work against children—particularly older ones—who are not used to functioning in the highly elaborated code that our courts demand. Knowing that different family conversational codes and styles exist could help sharpen our listening skills, and perhaps lead to an alternative interpretation when a child seems “deliberately” vague, reticent, or remains silent in the face of our questions. 

For citations, see the Handbook on Questioning Children.