“How was your day?”
We’ve all been there: that often harried moment in the car where we transition from our own day into the afternoon and evening with our darling offspring. Eager to connect, we fall back on that tried and true question in the hopes of connecting, only to be met with a monosyllabic grunt in response. Surely there’s got to be a better way, am I right?
Creating Conversations vs. Closed Questions
Yes-or-no questions, also known as closed questions, lead to monosyllabic answers. If our desire is to have interesting, thoughtful conversations with our kid, then we have to practice the same conversation skills that we utilize with the other people in our lives. Instead of, “How was your day”-type platitudes, try something along the lines of, “What was the most interesting thing you did today?” Any variation on this - what was the most frustrating, or silliest, or most challenging, etc. - will get the conversation ball rolling and you may be surprised at what you hear. This can be a conversation starter with all age levels.
Once you’ve started the conversation, be sure to give your child or teen your undivided attention. Listen to them - this deceptively simple task helps your child or teen to find confidence in their voice. As a parent today, I am still reminded frequently by my own mother of when I was in elementary school I gave her a communication wakeup call by pulling on her sleeve and emphatically stating, “Mommy - listen with your eyes.”
Sorry about that, Mom, for the parental guilt that I’m sure ensued, but at the same time, it’s an important reminder for all of us parents who are juggling the many facets of modern family life.
Put the dishes down. Put the phone/laundry/cooking/mail down. Stop for a minute to sit and look at your kiddo - heck, our brains and bodies can benefit from the pause, as well. With younger children, help them to identify feelings when needed by asking questions and validating their statements by naming emotions, i.e. “That sounds like a frustrating situation!” With teens, refrain from judgement or advice offering unless they ask for your opinion. This one is hard - we have the benefit of adult life experience and we want to spare our teens some of the pitfalls that we wish we could have avoided, but unless it’s a safety concern, let them work through things. You grew into the fabulous adult you are by making decisions and navigating pitfalls when needed.
Long story short, even ten minutes a day of your direct attention can go a long way towards building a rapport with your child or teen that will blossom into meaningful conversations as they grow.
Respecting Transition Time, i.e. Silence is Okay Sometimes
In our fast-paced world, time together with the family can feel fleeting. In the hurry of making dinner, unpacking and packing lunchboxes, dance class, sports practice, and the umpteenth other demands on our time, conversations tend to get rushed in between those other pertinent tasks. This rushed feeling can get us into that less than ideal pattern of hammering our kids with question after question as soon as they get in the car or arrive at home from school. Imagine walking out of work and immediately being interrogated by a family member and asked to recount every minute of your day. It’s too much, right? Give your kid the same space that your brain likes to have. Sometimes your child may need to space out and stare out the window after school, or listen to music, read, run around in circles. If they don’t seem chatty, give them time to decompress before opening up conversations. Follow their lead. And resist the urge to fit in the daily rundown between other items on your to-do list. Rewarding conversation can happen at bathtime, bedtime, while running errands, or even while playing a board game. Kids and teens open up more when they aren’t in the hot seat.
Let’s NOT Talk About You (to Better Talk About You)
Speaking of the hot seat, taking the focus off of your child or teen can actually open up a whole broader range of topics for discussion. Especially as adolescence approaches, tweens and teens don’t like to feel like they’re being analyzed, criticized, scrutinized, basically all of those -zed words. They can be like a deer in headlights if they feel like you’re in their business, so you want to approach from a broader angle. Ask them their opinion on topics in the news or other current events. Ask them about music, books, or movies that they like and ask for recommendations. Tell them about your day, warts and all, and ask their thoughts on things you are working on. Teens want to be treated like soon-to-be adults and your conversations could and should reflect that. Getting a steady rapport of talking about other things can make it much easier when the hard conversation topics come up.
Another thing to keep in mind: communication isn’t just the words that come out of our mouths. I asked some teens at our school to give me some feedback on best practices for parent/child communication and I was impressed with the responses I was given.
One learner shared:
“I think it is important for parents, and for adults in general, to understand the role that facial expressions, tone and word choice play in conducting a good conversation. I think sometimes the process of good communication can be hindered by adults not being totally aware of the way they come across to their children. Often, what would have been a good conversation gets thrown off track because the child gets discouraged because they think the adult doesn't take them seriously.”
Another learner gave the following DOs and DON’Ts:
“A DO would be talk to your child; most teens want their parents to at least try. DO make time for your teens - going out to dinner with my mom if I don't have a lot of homework brightens my day. DON’T invite people along on parent/teen dinner dates. DON’T interrupt your teen when they are doing homework to talk to them, that is literally the most annoying thing my mom does. Like all I want is to sit and finish this work and I promise I will talk to you after. Another DON’T is asking your teen to do three things at the same time; I can only do so much at once.”
Children and teens wants to be heard. Listening is every bit, if not more, important than talking when communicating with our kids.
In closing, I’d like to share a list to get you started with moving beyond, “How was your day?” These conversations starters were adapted from the online resource, www.parentingideas.com:
Tell me what made you laugh today?
Who did you play/hang out with outside today?
Did you do anything that was brave?
What did your teacher(s) talk about today?
Where’s the best place to hang out/play at school?
Tell me one good thing that happened to you today?
Who were you nice/kind/friendly to today?
Did anyone push your buttons today?
What did you do that you were proud of/happy with today?
What’s something you learned with a friend today?
What’s your teacher/classroom’s most important rule?
If today was a musical instrument what would it be? Why?
If you were a teacher tomorrow, what would you teach the class?