Start conversations with your kids using these tips

By Shannon Lindquist

Social Emotional Health Educator for Michigan State University Extension

OSCEOLA COUNTY — School has started and all across Michigan parents are asking a familiar question: What happened at school today?

All across our great state kids are telling us ... "nothing."  Getting kids to share what happened during the school day can be difficult and frustrating. Parenting experts Dr. Charles Fay and Dr. Michele Borba, along with Lynn Gibson, child care expert, offer suggestions for starting conversations that will elicit more than a single word when you ask that important question.

Time: Give your kids some down time after they burst through the door; time to be noisy, grab a snack, change clothes and play. As anxious as you are to hear about their day, bombarding them with questions the minute they walk in the door doesn’t give them any breathing space.

Questions: Your child isn’t on the witness stand. Refrain from firing one question after another at them. Less can be more when getting information.

Think like a child: What stories do your kids already tell you about school? What do they talk about related to school? Thinking about these two questions can work as "ice breakers" for getting the conversation rolling.

Role model: Kids notice how adults talk to each other. Share how your day went with your significant other. The dinner table is a great place for this conversation to take place. Share something that would be of interest to the whole family, like a friend who attended a movie you’ve been talking of seeing. When adults share their day with the whole family, kids will be encouraged to join in with their parents and to start their own conversations.

Time: Start conversations when you have time to really listen. Children know if you are engaged in the conversation. I was once told over the phone, "You are using the same voice mom uses when she isn’t really listening." I have never forgotten that comment from my niece and it happened 27 years ago! You know you’re interested in what your child has to say, but if your actions tell a different story, there will be no conversation and your child will quit making an effort.

Comments: Once your kids start talking limit your comments and use your "good listening ears." Use non-threatening comments such as "Wow!" or "That must have made everyone pay attention" or "Un huh." A sure way to stop a conversation is to interrupt and start lecturing or objecting to what your child is telling you. That discussion can happen later, unless it’s a safety issue which of course needs to be dealt with immediately.

Multi-tasking: Dr. Fay states "kids are more likely to talk about stuff when they are playing or doing something that’s fun." So ... grab the basketball, go on a walk, begin a table game and see what happens. The focus is then on the activity taking pressure off the child to "report."

Questions: It’s all about how you ask a question and open ended questions work best. Instead of "Do you have homework?" Do your homework first by checking out the backpack. Is it loaded down with books? Is it empty? Your comment can be, "I noticed your backpack was empty, wow how did that happen?" Backpack full? A comments such as, "I see you were loaded down with books tonight, what all do you need to accomplish tonight?"

Creative: Change up your questions from time to time so your first exchange at the end of the day with your kids isn’t always predictable and automatic.

Providing opportunities for conversations, listening and asking the right questions will foster communication and enhance your relationships with your children. These skills can also help children make their way in the world. For more information on healthy relationships, communication and parenting skills, visit the Michigan State University Extension website