Small Talk: How to Get Your Kid to Chat About Her Day
Conversation Stopper: Information Overload
A million things, great and small, have happened since your son got on the school bus, so when you ask "What happened today?" he may be overwhelmed. Should he tell you about the fire drill? The weird smell in the lunchroom? How he scored 100 on the spelling test? "He doesn't know what kind of information you want, so he truly draws a blank," says Adam Cox, Ph.D., author of Boys of Few Words: Raising Our Sons to Communicate and Connect.
Talking Points: By asking specific questions like, "Who did you play with at recess?" or "Who did you sit next to at lunch?" you'll begin teaching your child how to scroll back in time and make stories out of his experiences, explains Dawn Huebner, Ph.D., psychologist and author of the What-to-Do Guides for Kids series. You'll also be giving him a better idea of the kind of things you're interested in knowing. If you want lively answers, ask fun questions: Best/Worst or Coolest/Most Uncool thing that happened is engaging, and it provides another way to help kids share the day's events.
Conversation Stopper: Tough Transitions
Your child is straddling two worlds. "For a good part of the day she's responsible for herself and navigates complex situations without your help," says Gretchen Barber-Lindstrom, a Phoenix-based social worker. Then, suddenly, she's back home where she can let her guard down and be a little kid again. "It can be hard to switch gears," says Barber-Lindstrom. She might find it overwhelming to sort out the emotions of the day.
Talking Points: Let her have some time to decompress after school. Give her a snack and some downtime before you ask about her day. "Take cues from your child," says Dr. Huebner. "If your specific questions unleash an eager flood of details, keep them coming. If they're met with one-word responses, assume she needs more time to chill out." Kick off the conversation by talking about your day—sharing your experiences will teach your child to communicate by example.
Conversation Stopper: Location
The dinner table has long been considered an ideal place for parents to chat with their little ones about their day. But sitting face-to-face can make some children shut down. “Kids tend to open up a little bit more when there’s not a direct eye contact,” says Megan A. Mooney, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and president elect at the Texas Psychological Association in Cedar Park, Texas. Sitting in the backseat of a car can take the pressure off. (And between school drop off and pick up and your kid’s growing list of extracurricular activities, you probably spend much of your day driving them around anyway!)
Another plus? “There are less distractions in the car because parents are just focused on the road and the kids,” says Sean Nixon, a pediatric mental health therapist based in Boise, Idaho, and incoming board member for the Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling. That means driving parents tend to listen more, creating space for “a friendly family conversation.”
Talking Points: Getting kids to spill details after a long day of school isn’t always an easy task—no matter where they are. But Nixon also recommends parents get creative when it comes to their questions. He has four go-to conversation starters: “Tell me about something that made you laugh today;” “Tell me about something that you felt sad about today;” “Tell me about something that you were frustrated about today;” and “Tell me about something that you learned today.”
And if conversation still isn’t flowing, turn on the music, says Dr. Mooney. “Engage in conversation around your kid’s favorite artist or song and try to open up the lines of communication that way,” she adds.
Conversation Stopper: Performance Anxiety
"Once your child enters first grade, he's aware that you're paying attention to how he's learning and getting along with others. He knows he's being watched and feels pressure to perform," says Gene Beresin, M.D., professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. This feeling of being judged can keep a child from wanting to share details about his day.
Talking Points: Try playing a game or reading together, and see what topics naturally arise. "Sometimes we try to get information too fast," says Dr. Cox. Doing an activity together can help him feel less guarded. Telling you that he didn't know an answer when he was called on in class is much easier when he's feeling close to you. Withhold judgment. If your child feels it isn't safe for him to share the low points in his day, he'll shut down.
Conversation Stopper: Short Memory
At this age, your child is actively increasing his "working memory"—the process used for temporarily storing and manipulating information. He has limited ability to recall the day's events at a later time. Working memory grows over time, faster for some than for others.
Talking Points: Chat up other parents and stay in contact with your kid's teacher so you'll be able to offer prompts such as: "Who was the mystery reader today?" Asking questions—even if you already know the answer—will help teach the art of the recap. Also, your child may not yet have a finely tuned emotional language, so opening up about things he felt during the day can be difficult. "Children usually respond to their feelings through action, because they can't always identify the feeling," says Michelle Maidenberg, Ph.D., the clinical director of Westchester Group Works, a center for group therapy. You can help build his emotional vocabulary by using words like excitement, anger, fatigue, worry, or frustration when you're talking about his behavior so he begins to see that there's a connection.
Why You Should Stop Solving Your Child's Problems
When your child is facing a challenge, of course you want to swoop in and save the day. But keep in mind that at school your kid is figuring things out for herself all day long. If you give your child solutions, you'll make her less resourceful. She'll think, "If they aren't like Mom's and Dad's, my ideas must be wrong."
Helping kids solve problems for themselves, on the other hand, is empowering. "When you facilitate instead of taking over, you're subliminally increasing your child's confidence," says Dr. Maidenberg. Ask questions like, "What do you think your options are?" or "What are you most comfortable doing?" If your kid believes she figured things out herself, it will be a self-confidence booster. When your child walks away from a conversation with positive feelings she will come back to talk to you again and again.
Are You Too Intrusive?
Even a 6-year-old needs some space. Follow these tips to walk the fine line between involved and intrusive.
Do allow your child to say he just doesn't feel like talking, but don't let him get away with ignoring you. Try to discuss why he's uncomfortable about a particular subject.
Don't barrage your child with questions if you notice she's getting anxious or seems distressed. "Kids shouldn't be put on the spot. If they sense you're prying, you need to back off," says Dr. Beresin.
Do ask your child if he'd like to talk about something later in the day, but don't argue with him if he says no. Respect his decision to keep some things to himself.
Don't bring up information you hear from secondhand sources unless it concerns your child's well-being. "When it involves health, safety, or respect for others, there's just no compromise. You have to talk about it even if your kid doesn't want to," says Dr. Maidenberg.