Breaking the Silence Barrier
“Hi bud, how was your day?”
“Did, uh, anything interesting happen?”
More silence. And then…
“Ah, okay. Well… did you do anything fun?”
Again silence. And, still more silence, broken finally by…
“I don’t know.”
…oh-kaaay. So glad we had this enlightening chat.
Perhaps you have also had this conversation with your own child… like EVERY SINGLE DAY when you have picked them up from school since they started KINDERGARTEN!
And yet, we continue to ask. We are gluttons for punishment.
But I know, we continue to ask because we actually want to know. Because we care. We haven’t seen our child for, oh, about 7 hours, and we just want to know if they are doing ok. I mean, that’s our job, right? To make sure they are ok.
We dropped them off this morning looking well-rested, reasonably clean, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed – you know, ready to conquer the day. But now (7-ish hours later), as they stagger to the car under the seemingly insurmountable weight of their backpacks – sweaty, flushed, rumpled, dirty, and grumpy – it is quite clear that the day won this round.
If we weren’t so accustomed to this daily degeneration, we would gasp in shock, “My God! What happened to you? Who did it? Were you thrown into a briar patch? Did somebody beat you up? It was those unbelievably delicious chocolate chip cookies I made, wasn’t it? Some bully robbed you of your cookies and THEN threw you into a briar patch???”
I don’t know what it is, but my kids somehow always come out at the end of school looking like the day kicked the ever-loving shit out of them… twice.
At any rate, this line of questioning – the “How was your day?” business – is not working out. I am generally not one to repeatedly scald my hand on the same pot handle, but I confess, I got burned by my kids with this question – daily – for, well… years.
(What we parents should do is jam in our airpods before they even get in the car, and then, once you’re loaded up and on your way, indicate with gestures and mouthing – can’t talk right now – listening to an important long phone message. And then turn your attention back to the road, and continue to enjoy the ebook or album you were listening to before they got in the car, and let them stew in their own sour juices.)
But we’re too nice for that. Too concerned. Too exceptional as parents… sigh… I know.
At any rate, I did (eventually) stop reaching for the scaling pot handle. I didn’t stop trying, but I did change tactics. And honestly, I feel a bit sheepish, because it turns out that all the time that I was singeing off my fingerprints, there was a better way. Actually, there are probably a lot of better ways, but here are the three strategies that worked for me.
What CAN you do to break through that infuriating wall of silence? How do you pry your kid open – get to the good stuff?
Find the right time.
To begin with, find the right time. I know – that sounds too simplistic. You were, perhaps, hoping for something of a more eye-popping nature. But I promise you, 90% of the problem (well, at least 82%) is that we pick the worst possible time.
Most of us attempt to launch into a conversation with our child about their day during the car ride home. In fact, often, the poor kid has not even had time to click their seat belt into that thing that the seat belt clicks into before the question is out of our mouths.
And while it’s true – there are some children out there who are bubbly and chatty – even at the end of their school day, they are the rare exceptions. Most kids tend toward monosyllabic answers, or revert to the grunts of their neolithic forebears. ESPECIALLY when they are tired or hungry.
I’m going to say that again in plain language, just in case you missed it.
Tired and hungry kids are crap at conversation .
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever attempt conversation during the car ride home. For some kids, the car is about as good as it is ever going to get, because they are, literally, being held captive by their seatbelts and unable to run off and do something more exciting.
But first, you’ve got to address tired and hungry.
So, bring an after-school snack or drink in the car to combat that after-school grumpiness – and you’re going to have to do better than carrot sticks. Make it something good, something they like, something that will perk them up and give them a little energy. (Note: if you are one of those parents with a car that kids aren’t allowed to eat or drink in, your problems go way deeper, and I’m not sure this article is going to be able to help you. In fact, walk away from this article now, and go in search of therapy.)
PRO PARENTING TIP:
Or, you could swing by your local ice cream/frozen yogurt/boba tea shop for a “pick-me-up” treat. (It’s amazing what a scoop of mint chip can do for an eight years old’s mood, or how chatty your 12 year old gets sipping a large thai iced tea with boba and lychee jelly!) Note: if you do go this route, you may want to make it clear that this is not a daily event. Maybe it’s something you do on Wednesdays. Or Wednesdays and Fridays.
Now, the truth is that some children (even with bubblegum ice cream dripping down their hot, sweaty, little hands and onto your leather seats) are, truly, just too mentally drained at the end of a school day to engage in any meaningful chit chat.
If this is your kid, don’t sweat it. And don’t push it. They are decompressing. Processing. Resting. This is what they need to do right now. So, let them do it. (Don’t fight someone’s basic nature – you’re not ever going to end up a winner.) And find a different time.
Keep in mind:
Different people need different amounts of time to transition from one environment or activity to another. Even adults.
And, more introverted people are even more likely to need to decompress and have some quiet time to themselves after a busy school day. And yes, this also applies to adults.
So, the car ride after school is not working for your kid… what then?
For young children (under ten-ish), bedtime can be another prime time. Younger children are often eager to engage in conversation at that time in an effort to stay up a little later.
For older children, is there a drive to a sports practice or music lesson later in the afternoon, after they have had a chance to reboot? How are they at dinner time? And if all else fails, an evening trip to get a boba tea or whatever it is that floats their pre-teen boat, can be a perfect time to talk. (This is the highly successful back up strategy I use with my son, when I feel like we need to connect, and I don’t know what’s going on with him, and for whatever reason, nothing else is working.)
PRO PARENTING TIP:
I mentioned earlier that the car is a prime location for conversation. It is. (Just make sure you’re the one behind the wheel!) Most kids don’t really like to engage in intense face to face conversation (especially pre-teens and up), and yet, that is exactly how many parents try to talk to their kids, I assume because they feel more assured that they have their child’s attention.
But, let’s be real – unless you are at the super-hot-deep-eye-gazing-stage of a romantic relationship, no one really likes to have intense face to face conversations. This is why the car can be so effective. There’s the hum of the engine in the background. The traffic provides some mild distraction and can cover up awkward silences. And you are both facing in the same direction – not looking at each other. Oh, and everybody is strapped in for the duration of the ride. No one is walking out of this conversation!
Ask better questions.
So, you’ve picked a good time. How do you launch into this conversation?
Well, for starters, “How was your day?” is a crap question – for a bunch of reasons. I mean, when someone asks you, “How was your day?” or “How are you?”, how do you answer?
Do you, by any chance, say… “Fine.”?
“How was your day?” is a boring question. It doesn’t engage anyone’s interest – let alone a tired child.
It’s so common place that it is almost rhetorical. It’s a question we just ask to be polite. We don’t really expect a real answer. So, when you actually DO want a real answer… ask a better question.
Also, for a lot of children, “How was your day?” is just too vague. Their day had lots of different parts. Some parts were probably pretty good, other parts might have been downright rotten, and then there was all the blah in between. Explaining all of that is kind of complicated… It’s easier to just say, “Fine.” Or grunt. (FYI – it’s too vague for a lot of adults too.)
So, what IS a good question to ask?
Ask a question that will engage your child’s interest. This isn’t rocket-science. Think about how the news uses headlines to grab your attention. Headlines tend to be shocking, or sensational, and they often have a negative slant.
Ok, I know… it’s good to be positive, model a good attitude… sure. But, we want their attention. And we’re going to play dirty to get it.
Do you know why news headlines highlight disasters, danger, and all the evils of the world? Because people click on them.
This is not my opinion. That’s the facts. So, think of your opening question as click-bait. You’ve got to hook them. Because once you get them talking, it’s usually not so hard to keep them talking. You know, the whole “an object in motion stays in motion” business. Same principal. A talking kid continues to talk.
You could start with a question like:
“So how was today… did anybody get in trouble?”
“What was the worst thing that has happened this week? Any catastrophes?”
See if you can get a bite. If this question produces a, “Nothing” in response, you could follow up with, “NOTHING bad has happened at school? Holy Smokes! Ok, so what was the most hilarious thing that happened? Did anyone laugh so hard that milk came out their nose?”
“What game did you play at recess?”
“Does everyone usually play fair?“
“What happens when there are disagreements?”
Something to note about better questions is that they tend to be more specific. If you ask about a game at recess, your child’s mind goes directly back to their memories of recess, making it easier for them to think of something to say. They don’t have to go rummaging around in their tired brain for a memory.
If your child tends to be more guarded or private when talking about themselves, go for questions that are more generic. They can respond without feeling that they are divulging their deep dark secrets.
“Any grumpy teachers today?”
“Why do you think she was so grumpy? A bad mood? Kids weren’t listening?”
“Am I giving you enough food in your lunch?”
“If you were making your lunch, what would you put in your lunchbox?”
“If you could trade lunches with somebody, who would you trade with? How come?”
And if your child answers, “Arthur, because his mom puts donuts and gummy bears in his lunch…” don’t be a stick in the mud and say something lame and parent-y like, “well, that’s not very healthy! I thought the school had a policy against candy in lunches…” After all, you asked! You want to respond in a way that won’t make your child sorry they shared with you or discourage them from giving you a real answer next time. Something like: “Wow! That sounds delicious.” Which it does, right? I mean, who doesn’t want donuts and gummy bears for lunch.
You get the idea!
Some kids really enjoy being asked questions – good questions, that is. When my kids were younger, they would ask me to ask them questions (especially at bed time). So, I thought of all kinds of quirky, fun, and thought-provoking questions to ask – and boy did I learn a lot! I won’t get into that here, but click if you’d like to hear about it.
If you do get a response from your child, show interest, “Gaga ball? Wait, is that like dodgeball?” But let them do most of the talking. Sometimes, we get them talking only to take over the conversation ourselves. Don’t do that.
What annoying conversation stopping habits do you bring to the conversation?
I have an annoying tendency to try to turn everything into a learning opportunity. “That’s not very nice. Why do you think she did that? What could you have said that might have helped?” If you do this all the time, your kids will get very annoyed at you, and they won’t want to share things with you.
And, don’t jump in and try to fix their problems – unless they ask you to. “Wait, what do you mean you don’t have enough time to eat your lunch? How long do they give you? Do other kids finish their lunches?” (My husband does this.) Our parental tendency to want to rush in to take care of everything is one of the things that stops our kids from opening up and talking to us. Most of the time they are not looking for solutions – they are just telling us about their day, about their life. You can ask, preferably later, if they would like your help, but don’t assume they do. (And don’t be insulted if they don’t.)
Be aware of yourself as a participant in these conversations. Is there something you consistently do or say that tends to bring conversation with your child to a halt? For example, when my son complains about being tired (which he does like ALL the flippin’ time), I can’t seem to stop myself from saying, “Well, bud, you need to get to bed earlier…” Which is followed by immediate exaggerated eye-roll, head shake, and turning away. Conversation over.
Kids do a lot of testing the water with parents, dipping a toe in to gauge your reaction. How you react will determine how your child responds… how much they decide to tell you.
“Wait… KIDS ARE DOING WHAT IN THE BATHROOM AT LUNCH TIME?”
Yes, this kind of scenario will likely come up too. Click here to learn what NOT to do(COMING SOON – subscribe to be alerted when new articles are posted).
And here’s to many meaningful conversations with your child.