With the school year ending, many parents may be spending more time with their kids. And while their days may be filled with camp, playdates, classes, and more, and our adult days are filled with our adult stuff, we need to continue to cultivate the art of kid conversation.
Some families have kids who are naturally proficient reporters, but many of us have kids who are like my oldest son, aka “the vault.” With him, what happens at school (or camp or a friend’s house) stays there, unless and until we can get him talking about his day. So here are some tips from parents to get your kids to talk about what happened in their days, all of which we have applied with success to “the vault” and his brothers.
First, find the right time for the right conversations
If you make a practice of having family dinners, that’s a great place to talk. Car rides, walks, and playtime can also work. Find settings that make your kids happy, and establish the habit. And know your kids, and what makes them comfortable. Betsy Schwartz, mother of an 11-year-old girl, says, “I am pretty involved in my kid’s education, but I’ve never gotten a direct answer to ‘How was school today?’ I do get a lot of information at random times, usually in the car when I’m trying to get across a bad intersection, or when I’m trying to figure out what we have that’s edible, or other times when my mind is half elsewhere. Some kids find it easier to talk when the high beams are off.”
Marjorie Ingall, mother of two girls, ages 3 and 6, agrees. “I always liked that expression: ‘Shoulder-to-shoulder, rather than face-to-face.’ Sometimes the best and most effective conversations happen when you’re commuting, going for a walk, doing something else, and not having a Very Important Sit-Down Discussion.”
“I swear all our shoulder-to-shoulder conversations happen when I’m trying to parallel park,” jokes Kristin Courtemanche, mom to a 2-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter. Communication with our kids happens when it happens, and that’s one of the real challenges of parenting—being in the moment when you need to be.
Get the conversation going in unconventional ways
As parents, we need to cultivate habits of talking and sharing information, and sometimes that means finding tricks to get our kids to tell us what’s going on. In order to discover what happened in school/camp/their lives today, we not only have to have our listening ears on, but we must be ready to jumpstart the conversation in unconventional ways. Courtemanche adds, “This may only work with younger kids, but when I’m not making headway with ‘What did you do?’ I throw in some absurdities, and then I get corrected. ‘Was today the day you rode a rocket into space? No wait, you had a booger-decorating contest, right?’ And Frances will laugh and say, ‘NOOOOO! We made robot puppets for R week and we worked on our pattern necklaces!’”
Jessica Mann Gutteridge, mom of two boys, ages 2 and 6, says, “When I ask questions about what Rafe did and who he did it with, I will often get, ‘I don’t remember.’ But if I ask, ‘Who got in time-out today?’ I almost always get an animated story with lots of color that leads to a willingness to tell me more about his day. Even if nobody was in time-out, he might say, ‘Nobody, we were all very good today so Mrs. Johnson said she would read us another book before lunch,’ and we’re off to the races. Also, on the nights we actually have dinner together, usually weekends, we play ‘Mad, Sad, and Glad’—everyone reports on what made them mad, sad, and glad that day.” And here’s some advice from the mother of “the vault”: you may want to try modifying this to “Mad, Sad, or Glad,” as sometimes just a single emotion can take a conversation surprisingly far.
Ruth Bernstein, mother of a 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter, suggests, “I find superlatives very helpful, too, along the lines of, ‘What was the most boring/ridiculous/sad/enjoyable part of the day?’ At dinner, we each report on a new and good thing from the day, which we nickname newandgood, as in, “Hey, Aviav, what’s your newandgood from today?’”
Brady Lea reports on a dinnertime tradition that’s sparked her now 17- and 19-year-old niece and nephew to report on their days. “What is a superpower that could have really helped you out today? Like, I was so bored during math that if I could have sped up time, it would have been recess sooner. Or, I kept looking at Amanda’s cupcake at lunch—too bad I could not levitate it over to my lunch table.” Take note of this one if you’ve got teenagers in your house or in your life—Lea, a high-school theater teacher, says that this still works and is a great way to get conversation going among her students too.
And a tried-and-true conversation starter
Mark Binder and Alicia Lehrer often conduct a round of “thankfulness” at their dinner table with their two sons, 12 and 9, and their 6-year-old daughter. Family members describe what they’re thankful for, and everyone must listen to everyone else’s thankfulness before commenting. The practice, which teaches valuable listening skills, asks kids to reflect on their days and pick out what was meaningful to them. A small item—“I am thankful that Field Day is next week” or “I am thankful that my teacher isn’t sick anymore and she’s back at school”—can be a window into what makes a child secure and happy, and it can spark great conversation later in the meal or later on in the day or week.
What works for your family? Tell us what can we do to unlock the vault and find ways to stimulate our kids to talk about the big and small everyday events in their lives.
Photo Credit: Douglas Itkin