Five Questions You Should Never Ask Your Children
Have you ever felt that 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, extracurricular activity-filled world.
The way you communicate with your child needs to continually change and adapt to his developmental stages and phases.
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 your child is the opener. The first words in a conversation will set the tone for how much or little attention your child will give. Grab their attention right away by enticing your child into talking and into thinking.
Here are the five questions not to ask:
1. Is 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 will likely 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!
2. How Was School?
Timing is often 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. For some it’s the first moments home while all accounts of the day are fresh in their mind. Most others 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 out 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 will also 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.
3. What 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.
4. Is 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. It gives children the opportunity to discuss situations that the insightful parent can use to ascertain what’s troubling their child.
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.
5. Why 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 can also count on being certain that most of the time he truly has no idea “why” they do most of what they do. Curiosity and boredom top the list of reasons why they make most of the choices a child makes.
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.
Your body language and vocal tone indicate your intent. If you approach a conversation with an ominous tone, your child will astutely 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 that 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.
One of the most memorable moments a parent will spend with their child is gaining a view into the soul and spirit of their child. Heart-to-heart talks and brief conversations alike will be some of the strongest building blocks in your lifelong connection with your child. Because each one of our children will leave their own distinct fingerprint on the world, they all will have their own manner of expressing themselves. With the commitment to adapt to their changing developmental stages you will enjoy a lifetime of productive communication with your child.
Words to Avoid When Starting a Conversation With Your Child
Look for creative ways to open a conversation without asking a question.
Try phrases like “I was wondering” or “Tell me the best/worst part of your day.”
Gina Roberts-Grey is a freelance writer and mother of one.