8 questions that’ll get kids to open up about their day
Just this week, my 9-month-old said his first word — that, or my husband and I are projecting “mama” onto his usual unintelligible babble. We welcome the years of incessant toddler chatter, but we know that before we blink, he’ll be in his teenage years, not exactly dying to talk to Mom and Dad.
If you’re feeling like the only responses you can get from your kids are “I don’t know,” one-word answers or grunts, you’re not alone: Parents and children alike report trouble communicating with one another, particularly when it comes to tough topics like money, mental health and sex. As challenging as it may be, talking to your kids every day can help you stay connected and provide space to offer encouragement when necessary. Even the most introverted child has something to say.
Here are eight unique questions that can facilitate the conversation between you and your kids, according to parenting experts and expert parents.
1. What was the best part of your day?
Instead of the typical “How was your day?”, experts say that asking your child to recall the day’s highlights will yield a richer and more interesting response. Worded this way, the question also guides your kids to focus on the positive.
Hand-in-Hand parenting instructor and author Kate Orsen says she asks her daughter to list three good things that happened that day. Questions like this, Orsen says, “open up conversation without putting pressure on a child to talk.”
Similarly, one Louisiana parent says she always tries to redirect to the positive.
“I usually get a full report on who pushed who, who spilled yogurt at lunch and who said bad words. (He’s almost 5). So I ask him, ‘You’ve told me the bad stuff, now tell me one fun thing you did today,’” says New Orleans mom Sarah Netter.
2. What made you sad?
Jody Allard, of Seattle, Washington, describes this question as one of the most useful questions she has learned to ask her children.
“One of my kids tends to open up then about issues at school or feeling ignored or excluded, and it always puts her behavior in context,” Allard says. “Like, oh, no wonder you were tantruming all afternoon; you're feeling sad about your friends at school.”
Parents with tight-lipped teens may find they’re met with eye rolls when asking this question that may be too sensitive to adolescent emotions.
Mom Meredith Cohen Carroll, of Aspen, Colorado, says she asks her kids, “What’s the most annoying thing that happened today?” Simply swapping the word “sad” for “annoying,” she says, is a less intrusive approach to elicit tough talks.
3. Who did you play with at recess?
During adolescence and teenage years, in particular, it can be hard to draw out anything beyond the one-word answer. Experts like Kezia Willingham, center manager of Child Parent Centers, Inc., suggest parents follow the journalists’ rule of asking four Ws and one H: who, what, where, when, why and how.
“Open-ended questions are better at facilitating deeper communication with children than questions that can be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” Willingham says.
San Francisco mom Nikki Ramsey Hootman says she’s learned to avoid questions with superlatives — like best or worst — because it tends to result in a complete brain-freeze for her overly literal kid.
“It forces him to re-evaluate every moment of the day to make sure he is choosing the absolute correct answer, and usually he'll get overwhelmed and say, ‘I don't know,’” Hootman says.
She says instead, she’ll go for leading questions like, “Give me an example of a problem you did in math today” or “Who did you play with at recess?” Once your child gets started, one thing may lead to the next, she suggests.
4. How’s Rachel?
Recalling facts from previous conversations — such as mentioning your child’s friend by name — shows your child you’re listening.
Get to know your child’s school schedule, asking things like, “What did you do in art this morning?” Keep in mind her favorite toys or games with questions like, “What did you get to build with blocks this afternoon?” Pay attention when your child opens up to you about their particular joys or challenges by asking about something he previously mentioned, like “How was Mr. Mueller’s class today?”
Being specific to something you’ve already discussed shows them you’re paying attention and value what they have to say.
5. How were you kind?
Research shows that prosocial behaviors are skills that can be taught. The nonprofit, Roots of Empathy, found that schoolchildren who were taught messages of social inclusion and engaged in consensus-building activities demonstrated less aggression and more ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Foster kindness by asking your child for an example of how they were kind to someone and/or how someone was kind to them. Studies suggest that if we make a habit of asking this question, our children will make a habit of having an answer.
6. What surprised you the most?
Ask this question and you may learn unexpected changes to your child’s daily routine. (“We had a sub today,” “Dad picked me up,” “Soccer practice was cancelled.”) Other times, this question may solicit better responses than the old, “What did you learn in school today?”
Answers like “I learned a week-old sandwich gets moldy” or “Joey explained how babies are made” remind us that learning doesn’t only happen in the classroom!
7. What’s the funniest thing that happened today?
Asking what your child found funny will help you get to know and appreciate your kid’s sense of humor.
Mom Katia Grubisic, of Montreal, Quebec, says her husband always asks their 3-year-old what they had for lunch at daycare because he’s found that her response — “caca” — makes her laugh.
“She finds it hilarious,” Grubisic says. “He follows up with questions about sauces and sides!”
8. What are you grateful for?
Child & Family Psychotherapist Veronica Bojerski says that asking your children to contemplate gratitude can boost their mood (and yours!). Bojerski says she and her daughter practice gratitude checks-ins on the way to school.
“I get to hear what is important to her,” Bojerski says.
Like all these conversation-starters, asking this question strengthens the parent-child connection, and Bojerski says that repeating a gratitude practice at bedtime promotes better sleep by releasing worries.
You can’t force your child to talk, but by asking the right questions and genuinely listening, you’ll build trust and help your child open up.