For a voluble kid, my six-year-old has a real gift for shutting down when I ask him how school is going. He’ll spend hours talking to me about Pokemon or strange animal facts, but when it comes to opening up about his days, he typically maxes out at “good,” “fine,” or some version thereof.
He seems pretty happy and well-settled, so I’m not especially worried about whether he’s actually struggling. Still, I’d like to know what happens in his life for seven hours a day.
So HuffPost Parents pulled together some strategies to help kids open up about their day, especially if they’re as quiet as my son.
Feed them first
It’s important for parents to recognise that it really does take more energy and effort for children to think back on their day and put that experience into words, according to Rebecca Jackson, vice president of programs and outcomes and a cognitive specialist at Brain Balance Achievement Center. The kids aren’t necessarily being obstinate or cagey on purpose. They might just be genuinely fried.
“Make sure they’ve had a snack with protein 20 to 30 minutes before you try and get them communicate so they have the fuel to do what maybe doesn’t come as naturally to them,” Jackson says.
Yes, sometimes it really is that simple.
Experiment with timing
Asking kids how they’re doing – and getting an actual, robust answer – often comes down to timing, Jackson says. When you pick them up, you’re probably really eager to hear all about their day because you missed them, but they might want nothing more than to just decompress. Is your child more likely to open up at bedtime? Is it better to save updates for the weekend?
Many parents find that it helps to use time in the car, whether that’s en route to school or to various activities, or when you’re out running errands together to catch up. It has a clear beginning and end – plus, kids don’t have to make direct eye contact with you when they’re opening up, which can be helpful.
Pair your questions with an activity
“When I want my son to open up, we go play catch,” Jackson says. “Then I can ask him questions and he’ll be super chatty.” Her daughter, on the other hand, is more inclined to talk about her day if they head to Starbucks or take a walk together.
Some evidence shows that changing up where you are and what you’re doing can have an impact on communication. Research suggests that having meetings while walking can be useful for adults because they make people feel more creative and can reduce mental fatigue. It’s not unreasonable to assume the same might be true of parents and children walking and talking together.
Use information you already have about their classroom, teacher, etc.
Like kids, parents also need to do their homework, former teacher Christopher Persley wrote in a 2017 article for Lifehacker about getting kids to open up. That means learning as much as you can about your child’s teacher, their classmates, and their day-to-day schedule – and then using that information to help get conversations going.
“Take detailed notes at curriculum evenings and at parent-teacher conferences. I’ll even check out the school menu to see what the kids are having for lunch each day,” Persley says. “Having this information at your disposal makes it easier to formulate questions for your child.”
The curriculum night trick has been a lifesaver in my own home, and I’ve been using bits of information his teacher shared about the daily schedule and classroom structure to get my son to open up. (Bonus: He’s continually dazzled by my seemingly magical ability to know about things like circle time and the classroom helper.)
Ask specific but open-ended questions
Just about every parent knows that “how was your day?” is too broad of a question to get kids to open up, especially those who aren’t naturally inclined to share. But if you’re too specific, you might find yourself firing off a lot of questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no,” or the dreaded “fine.”
The goal is to ask questions that are narrow, but still open-ended. Here are some examples to try:
What was the best part of your day?
Did anyone in your class do anything funny? Tell me about it!
Did you get to do anything new today?
Depending on your child, it might also help to lead with some information about your day – or your past. Like, “When I was your age, we always played XYZ at recess. What do you and your friends like to do?”
Don’t immediately jump into problem-solving mode
While your child might share something that requires you to get involved, resist the urge to dive right into fix-it mode. If, for example, your child talks to you about bullying (whether they’re the bully or the one being bullied), start by really listening – no matter how difficult it might be.
“Give your child space to explain what’s going on and how they feel about it,” the website for the Child Mind Institute says. Again, that doesn’t mean you’re ultimately going to be hands-off. But it helps them feel like you’re really hearing them.
As parents, our aim in all of these conversations and check-ins should be to “lead with curiosity,” Jackson says. By listening carefully and showing genuine interest in what kids share, they’ll hopefully feel even more encouraged to keep opening up.