5 Questions NOT to Ask Your Children

by gina roberts-grey

Have you ever thought holding a conversation with your child is an exercise in futility? Too many parents wrestle with how to maintain clear, productive communication with their kids. Between running from practice to practice and juggling school, sports, personal and social lives, families often find it difficult to communicate.

The young toddlers whose every new word we once rejoiced over are now maturing into adolescents and young adults whose words we now strive to hear and understand. Somewhere between preschool and puberty we start to lose some of the ability to hold meaningful conversations with our children. The older they become, the more they retreat into their computer game-filled and extracurricular activity-filled world.

The way you communicate with your child needs to continually change and adapt to his developmental stages and phases. Too many children consider their parents the last resort as a conversing partner. Parents are considered blasé conversationalists compared to the stimulating media options tempting our children.

It is startling that a study conducted by Oregon Health & Science University concluded seven out of 10 kids ages 10 to 14 would rather talk to their friends about a personal problem than share it with their parents.

One consolation is that you are not alone. Many parents cringe at the thought of trying to start a conversation with their children, because as they children develop, it sometimes seems you have nothing in common.

And, children often can perceive your innocent questions as boring, or to be an intrusion. They may feel as though you are prying, when in reality all that you are really trying to do is stay involved in their lives. The same OHSU study found that children as young as 5 years old demonstrate frustration when talking with their parents.

It’s never too early to lay the groundwork in forging strong communication with your children. No matter what their age, you both will benefit from building stable lines of communication.

A key element to starting a fruitful conversation with children is the opener. The first words in a conversation will set the tone for how much or little attention children will give. Grab their attention right away by enticing them into talking and into thinking.

Sometimes we have to scratch off the layers of a conversation before uncovering the answer to our actual question. Suggest a conversation with them instead of asking for one. Try beginning a conversation without asking a direct question. Ask your child to tell you his favorite part of the day, or the worst part about doing homework.

1Is your room clean?

The best defense in preventing a stalled conversation is avoiding an ambivalent or vague question geared toward receiving an equally vague answer. Both you and your child each have your own unique standard for a “clean room.” If he is on the way out the door to play or to the movies, your child’s answer will be a robotic “yes,” regardless of the actual condition of his room. “WOW! I can’t believe you put everything away in your room in only five minutes!” gets your child to re-examine his room and eliminates a stock one-word answer.

One of the most powerful forms of communication is demonstrating an interest in the subject or the co-speaker. Physical proximity is a powerful message during a conversation. Show your interest in the subject. Invite your child to go with you to his room to check if it’s up to par. Every child dreads room cleaning and likely will welcome not only the organizational assistance but also the company. Talk to your child about the items in his room and where things should be placed. Helping him discover his sense of style will lead to touching conversations.

By spending time in his comfort zone, you will neutralize some conversational barriers. Try phrases that get him to think for a moment about the answer. Perhaps you’ll not only have a good talk, but also find a better way to organize the black hole under his bed!

2How was school today?

Often, timing is everything. Talking about school is one of the last things kids want to do upon returning to their safe haven. After spending eight hours in school they want to unwind, not rewind. Replaying all the events of the day for Mom and Dad is as appealing as hours of homework. To counter his reluctance to reiterate the day’s events, choose the best time for your child to talk. It might be the first moments home while all accounts of the day are fresh in his mind. Most kids, however, need to wind down — to collect and process the day’s details before telling you how school was.

Millions of parents hear responses of “fine” and “boring” every day after school. Your child knows exactly how school was because he was the one to experience it first hand. You must draw out information while still granting him the latitude to recharge his mental batteries.

Avoid questions that allow for the possibility of one-word answers. If you want to know how school went, start by asking him to fill you in on the details of lunch or how many days there are until summer vacation. If he still persists with “boring,” “nothing” or “fine,” ask him to give you five reasons why math was boring. Patient persistence balanced with suggestive questions will capture his attention.

Once you have his attention, he’ll unknowingly begin to freely chat with you about school. You’ll gain great insight into how he is doing in class and hear who his friends are. Equally important, you also will start to see a pattern in the ideal times to talk about school.

Display your mutual respect and invite your child to discuss age-appropriate details of your day at home or work. Show him your ease at sharing seemingly trivial facts. Another helpful trick is to set aside time every day to discuss school. Both of you will know that at a specific time you can share details and concerns about school. This will eliminate his feelings of pressure to converse about school. He will not try to dodge a discussion because he knows what to expect. You will give him some control to prepare and even look forward to sharing an after-school snack and all the trials of social studies with you.

3What do you want to eat?

There are some questions that set us up for an immediate headache. Given the chance, children would choose to eat burgers and fries or something dipped twice in chocolate every day. Take advantage of your creative resources and look for innovative opportunities to talk about the food they eat.

Quality is more beneficial than quantity. If your child’s taste buds seem to have stalled in the fast-food lane, invent new recipes together. Ask for five or 10 minutes of help with dinner or for his opinion on new recipes. Even though you don’t need the help, you’re opening the lines for a pleasant discussion. Using an activity as a diversion takes the pressure off. While you chop celery together you can gain insight into his friends, their hobbies and habits.

Many children want to talk on their terms. The more you ask how they’re doing in school or who their best friends are, the more they’ll withhold information. They want to be in control and to initiate the exchange. If you are patient in gathering every detail, these children respond by divulging a bevy of news.

4Is something wrong?

When you notice behavioral or emotional changes in your child, the natural reaction is to ask, “What’s wrong?” Every parent fears their child is battling an emotional foe alone. When we sense they are hurting, it is our natural inclination to intervene. “I noticed you seem upset” or “Let’s talk about why you’re spending so much time alone” will break the ice.

This is one of the situations when parents must don their detective badges. You need to skillfully ask questions designed to draw out a conversation that will reveal the source of a problem. Respect his boundaries and try phrases that give him the chance to offer information comfortably.

Begin a conversation with his favorite topic: himself. “Your room seemed like it could use some attention” and “Who did you sit with on the bus?” start a dialogue geared around him. Your child might be struggling with a specific school subject; feeling inadequate in school; or, more simply, he might just be feeling unsure about the physical changes he’s experiencing.

Invite your child to spend one-on-one time with you. A sympathetic blend of nurturing and wisdom will ease the strife. Communicating your understanding of his feelings and offering the compassionate voice of experience will enhance the bond with your child. He will see the human side of his parent and learn to trust your perspective.

5Why did you do that?

As soon as a child is old enough to make a mistake, you can count on the fact that he’s going to. You also can count on being certain that most of the time he truly has no idea “why” he does most of what he does. Curiosity and boredom top the list of reasons why kids make most of the choices they make.

Take a bored or mischievous child on a quick errand. Ask about his favorite music or bring up a commercial you saw for an upcoming movie. An icebreaker can lead into a worthwhile conversation and lend further insight.

Your body language and vocal tone indicate your intent. If you approach a conversation with an ominous tone, your child astutely will sense this and withdraw. If you have to address an unpleasant topic with your child, try practicing in front of a mirror. Rehearse a mock conversation and pay attention to your body language. Sit down next to your child or bring yourself to his level instead of standing. This will show your respect and set a positive mood for your conversation.

Another important aspect to communicating with your child is listening to what he’s saying. Ultimately, if you’re hearing things about friends or school you don’t feel comfortable with, you should feel relieved to know you’re building strong lines of communication with your child. If he has the security to discuss uncomfortable or private issues with you, you have succeeded. Revel in knowing you have effectively learned how to communicate with your child.

Healthy productive communication is one of a parent’s strongest defenses against destructive childhood habits. Whether you have to refine your detective skills or creatively suggest conversations, you will uncover the methods that best suit your family. Talking to your kids about everyday life is as important as talking to them about sex, alcohol and illegal substances.

Heart-to-heart talks and brief conversations alike give parents a view into the soul and spirit of their children, as well as become some of the strongest building blocks for a lifetime of connection. Because all children leave their own distinct fingerprint on the world, they all have their own manner of expression, and with the commitment to adapt to their changing developmental stages, parents can enjoy a lifetime of productive communication with their children. SFM

Gina Roberts-Grey is a freelance writer and mother of one.