Gail Heyman, Ph.D.

Gail Heyman Ph.D.

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Get Past Dead-End Conversations With Your Kids

How to ask more engaging questions.

Posted Jan 24, 2015

“How was school?

“Fine.”

"What did you do today?”

“Nothing.”

For many parents, dead-end conversations with their kids have become part of the daily routine. The key to getting unstuck is finding the right questions to ask.

When kids are asked the same questions repeatedly they often give a stock answer without really thinking. A question like “How was your day?” can also be difficult for kids to respond to because it doesn’t give them an easy way to search their memory for an experience that seems meaningful enough to discuss. 

One approach that often works is to ask children specific questions about events that are going on in their lives. For example, if you find out that your child recently studied a particular topic in school, you could ask him or her to teach you something about it.

It’s helpful to have a set of topics that are likely to interest children but don’t often come up in daily conversations. For example, parents might not discuss dreams with their children very often even though dreams can be a great source of information about children’s mental lives. You can get a set of questions that are designed for starting more engaging conversations in a free app for iOS that I created called Beyond Small Talk. When one mom I know asked her two children some of the questions from the app she was surprised to learn that they both had recurring dreams of cheetahs running through their backyard. 

Parents can also make use of their own daily experiences as starting points for more thoughtful conversations. For example, if you face a dilemma over whether to tell someone that she didn’t do a good job, you can ask your child to help you consider what outcomes your different options might lead to.

Another strategy is ask your children questions that relate to their early experiences, and parents can do this in a way that has both cognitive and emotional benefits (see this article in Child Development). The basic approach is to start by asking your child about a specific event that is likely to be memorable.  You then ask further questions that build on your child’s responses and incorporate more details as the conversation evolves. In this way, you are essentially collaborating with your child to tell a story about his or her experience. 

Even when parents ask great questions and are highly responsive to their children’s answers, it isn’t always going to lead to an interesting conversation. Sometimes just waiting a while or experimenting with new topics can help. 

By asking children a wide range of questions, and by being patient and flexible, parents can better understand the rich network of thoughts and feelings that shape their children’s developing sense of themselves and the world around them.

Conversation Starters

What’s something you’ve dreamed about more than once?

What's something you’ve done at school that you’d like to do more often?

What’s something that scares you? 

What’s one place you went that you liked exploring?

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