If you’re like me, you want your kids to fill you in on everything that goes on in their school day. But when you ask them about it, you receive little more than, "Fine."

Parent-child conversation, whether it be after school, at the dinner table, or on the road, can be fun, enlightening, and something that keeps the family close. The problem is, sometimes kids’ communication skills or desires are limited and "opening up" can be difficult. Kids need adults to help them get conversations going.

Here are some ideas to help conversation and communication become easier and more productive. With simple ways to help kids open up, your relationships can become better, you can be alerted to situations that need special attention, and your kids can feel confident in your love.

Asking Specific Questions

If your child is answering with one-word responses, it’s because you’re asking them closed questions. ("Did you have fun at school today?" "Yes.") Try asking specific questions and carefully listening so you can know which questions to ask next. In order to do this, you need to be in on what makes up your child’s life.

Gathering Kid Information

Probably the most important step toward asking good questions is to be attuned to your kids’ studies, schedules, victories, challenges, and friends (see the sidebar to test your kid knowledge). Talk to teachers. Look around classrooms. Watch and listen while your kids interact with friends. Discuss daily schedules and, most important of all, catch them doing things right and complement them on it. Knowing what’s going on in your children’s lives makes you a better conversationalist because it allows you to ask specific questions and prepares you to truly listen to the answers.

By staying attuned to kids’ lives you’ll never be at a loss for good questions. Here are some examples:

  • You’ve talked to your daughter’s preschool teacher and you know her favorite area is the sensory table. You might then ask your daughter, "What was in the sensory table today?"
  • You may have helped your third-grade son practice for a stressful, timed math test. You might ask him, "How did the math test go?"
  • You may have noticed your high school son didn’t talk to his best friend Jim over the weekend. Jim usually calls fifteen times. You might ask him, "What’s new with Jim?"

    Your kids may still respond to your questions with short answers, but at least they’ll be specific short answers. More important than their answers is that by asking these questions, you subtly let your kids know that you care and you’re interested in hearing what they have to say.

    Enticing With Humor

    Now, the truth is, even when you ask specific questions, your preschooler may still not remember much about her day, and your teen may still offer only one- or two-word answers. If so, this is a good time to pull out humor, another effective device for starting a conversation.

    Getting a giggle from a young child is easy because they love to correct you. For instance, if your child is studying farm animals at preschool, you might ask if she learned that cows say "neigh" and then follow that with both ridiculous and specific questions. Using humor with older kids is a little more challenging but well worth the effort; they also deeply need ways to bond with you.

    One way to make older children smile is to feign dramatic reactions to their short answers. For example, you might clutch your chest and say, “Oh, I’ve been away from my dearly loved children for over eight hours and now…they tell me so little about their day!” It may sound cheesy, but try out a few different humor ideas to see what makes your kids smile.

    Asking the Same Questions Everyday

    One final approach to getting kids to open up after school or later, during dinner for instance, is to ask them the same question, or questions, every day. The advantage of this approach is that kids will eventually anticipate the questions and may actually start taking mental notes of happenings throughout the day that they can share after school. The daily questions I like to use with my kids are:

  • "What did you do today that you’re proud about?"
  • "What is coming up for you in the next few days?"
  • "What questions do you have for me about my day?"
  • For many kids, it works best to warm them up with specific questions or humor before asking one or more of these relatively advanced everyday questions.

    Patiently Waiting for Answers

    I once asked my three year old, "What’s one way you and Daddy are alike?" There was silence. I was a little disappointed about the silence because I’d planned to use her answer to this question in a Father’s Day card. However, I knew better than to "help" her answer. Then, after I thought she’d long forgotten my question, I was rewarded for my patience. She said, "We both have round heads."

    The point of this story is that we parents need to patiently wait for answers from kids. It can take a while for them to formulate answers, so it’s important to remember not only to ask good questions but also to patiently and silently wait for answers. Patient listening helps fosters kids’ communication skills and their future willingness to share what’s on their minds.

    I know a boy who came home from school with catsup on his backpack. He told his mom a supposed friend had squirted catsup all over it during lunch. His mother suspected her son was planning retribution, but she resisted pressing him further or giving advice on this particular subject. Instead, she expressed empathy and helped him wash his backpack. The next morning she asked, "What are you going to do about catsup boy?"  "I’m not going to sit by him,” he answered, then handed her a bottle of cologne he’d planned to use for revenge.

    Sometimes when you listen and withhold advice, you allow your kids the opportunity to practice the valuable skill of talking things through and coming up with their own positive solutions.

    Of course, there are times when you must speak up to give advice, reiterate expectations, and detail the consequences of not meeting your expectations. Additionally, if you suspect your child is deeply hurt, angry, or in some kind of danger at school, you must act immediately (phone teachers or administrators, for example) and get additional support for your child before the next school day. However, in most cases, given time and loving support, your kids will work through strong emotions and come up with their own workable next steps.

    Building Closeness Is the Most Important Thing

    In the end, questions and conversations with your children will probably matter more than all the educational toys you buy for them and more than all the good teachers and coaches they’ll have. Before your kids get home from school today, hang up the telephone and turn off the radio, television, and computer, and take a few minutes to formulate how you’ll greet them. What will you ask? How carefully will you listen? Then when your kids barge through the door remember this: Closeness-building conversation is primarily a function of good questions and careful listening—simple things that can yield a lifetime of invaluable rewards for you and your children.

    Test Your Kid Knowledge

    You’ll never run out of conversation starters when you stockpile specific information about your kids:

  • What subjects/concepts is your child studying in school this week?
  • What does a typical day’s schedule look like for your child?
  • What does your child naturally do well?
  • Who are your child’s closest friends?
  • What are some things your child has done right this week?
  • What are three things you especially love or admire about your child?
  • Asking yourself questions like these prepares you to listen and provides a wealth of topics for any conversational need in any circumstance, helping you become the one they’ll always want to share their successes and challenges with.

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