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How to get your kids talking

“How was school?” “Fine.” “What did you learn?” “Nothing.”

By Jason Keil

The ride home from school can feel like a battle of wills with my oldest son. When I start the car, he’s a bundle of ecstatic energy. But when I begin asking him about his day, his smile vanishes, and he locks his mouth up like a safe. The remainder of the trip is more nerve-wracking than an episode of Law and Order as I listen for any clue that will get him to open up to me.

My wife and I shared in our son’s excitement to start kindergarten this year.
But now that he’s several weeks in, it has been difficult for us to gauge his enthusiasm. And as someone who found socializing at school challenging, I’m always concerned that other kids are bullying him or he is finding the curriculum hard to handle.

But getting kids to talk about their day has been a struggle of parents for generations. And judging from the plethora of articles that deal with this topic, the fight to find out what happens at school will continue to be waged within minivans and around dining room tables far into the future.

1) Kids need to decompress after school
Even when adults arrive home from work, we often need (or would love to have) a few moments to decompress and allow our brains to shift from “work mode” to “caregiver mode.” And instead, when we are met with a barrage of questions and demands—What’s for dinner? Ugh, meatloaf AGAIN? —it can make us feel a tiny bit exasperated. Young children also need a moment to transition from school to home. But because they are younger, it’s harder for kids to make that shift.

Because children are young and immature, their brains are not adept at navigating the transition from “work” to home. When they are overwhelmed, their brains are fried. Children cannot hold on to their maturity when they are that tired. To add to this dynamic, children who are extra sensitive may show even more signs that they are overwhelmed.

Give kids a few moments to decompress and wait for them to open up. When they finally do talk about their day, listen carefully to what they have to say.

2) Young kids don’t recall the day’s events the same way you do
One of the reasons why your child is stonewalling you when you ask about their day is actually more biological than psychological. The first significant stage of brain development occurs between the ages of two and seven. At this age, when asked about their day in general terms, kids are unable to engage because their brains can’t recall memories in the same way adults or even older kids can.

One method to get them to open up is to use the itinerary of what goes on during a typical school day that most preschools and teachers give parents at the beginning of the school year. Asking questions that help kids recall specific memories about what happened during their day could spark a lengthier conversation.

3) Tell them about your day first
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a software developer, a cashier, a blogger, a doctor, a bus driver, or a stay-at-home parent because it’s not about the minutiae of the work, it’s about sharing what makes us laugh and what bores us, the mistakes we make and what is hard for us, or the interesting people we meet. When I model this for my daughter, she is more willing to share the same with me.

4) What if you think they are being bullied?
One out of five kids experiences bullying, and 25 to 60 per cent of those kids don’t report it to a parent or authority figure. As startling as these statistics are, parents probably won’t stop the trend by directly asking kids if they’re getting harassed in school.

If you suspect your child is the victim of bullying, there are ways to get them to open up. Parents should start asking simple, pointed questions about who they’re playing with and how it’s going. For example: Who did you play with today? What was that like? What are some things you like doing with other kids? What are some things you don’t like so much?

If that doesn’t work, you can use books, movies, and television shows that address bullying as a tool to help children open up or start the conversation about how children socialize with their peers. Even if your kid isn’t experiencing bullying, initiating these conversations will show them they can talk to you about these issues. 

Jason Keil is a writer, editor, and podcaster. Despite numerous attempts, he has yet to read the copy of “Infinite Jest” on his nightstand.

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