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100 Questions to Ask Your Kids

An Introduction for Parents
"What happened today at school?"
"How was the movie?"

Yuck! Is this bonding? Is this intimacy? Is this even news? Surely this isn't the kind of communication we fantasized about when we first decided to have children. No, we thought about all those late-night talks we would have over hot chocolate, musing about school or friends or – whatever. And maybe, from time to time, we do have heartfelt conversation that feels like we are really getting hold of our children's day to day lives – even their inner feelings.

But most of the time it's frustrating because we know that we are missing so much good stuff. We want to know more about their random thoughts, their hopes, their preferences, their perspective, their disappointments, what they are learning about life. We want to know them better. We want to know them the best we can.

And guess what? Our children are missing some of the good stuff about us, too. Most of the time, parents are the ones who start the conversations and set the terms for discussion. And some of the things that kids might be interested in never surface. Sometimes because parents introduce subjects that are interesting to themselves, they forget that there are all kinds of other questions that are primarily interesting to kids. So if parents are the only ones who get to select the topics of the day – it's boring. Or it's threatening – like questions about how school went today, or how did you do on your test? Or open-ended questions like "Whatever happened to that friend of yours. Jimmy?"

Kids sometimes don't like these kinds of questions because they think of them as unsafe territory – where is this kind of questioning going to lead? Am I going to get a lecture? Are we just sentences away from turning from a casual mention of my friend into the usual warnings about not spending too much time away from my homework? Kids often shy away from conversation because (a) it means trouble, not fun; (b) it's not about something they really care about; or (c) the questions are too broad, too hard for them to organize into any easy, focused answer. Result? Monosyllabic answers and very short conversations.

A Better Idea
It's not hard to think of a better idea than badgering your child to distraction, trying to extract some kind of information. The premise of this book is that communication can actually be fun for both parties – if it's seen as playful, occasionally suspenseful and surprising (in a good way), and if both parties (parent and child) are on equal footing. "Equal footing" means mutual control over the conversation so that the child, as well as the parent, gets to ask some of the questions he or she wants to ask, and everybody gets an equal chance to hold forth and be in the spotlight. No one interrupts the speaker, everyone gets an equal opportunity to ask a question, and each person gets to ask the question he or she is interested in having answered.

It might not seem very radical to say that in this "game" each person gets some uninterrupted time to answer a question and each person gets a chance to ask something that he or she thinks is really interesting, but the truth is, it doesn't happen with any regularity in most households. Several studies have found that there are fewer than twenty minutes a day of conversation between parents and children if you subtract talking that has to do with a command or criticism. There is also a lot of evidence that interruption is common – and usually done by the person with the most power. So guess how kids experience conversation: however it's begun, the parent often doesn't let the kid finish the thought (or complaint).

But this time, we aren't going to let each side fall into their old habits. Because this time it's a game – and in games, we follow the rules. And the rules here are to listen, to have a chance to get your thoughts across, and to answer honestly without being cut off.

To differentiate this game from other conversation (and, 1 hope, to set a model eventually for other conversation) the game begins at a certain time. I suggest either during dinner – especially if you are sick and tired of silent meals punctuated only by the television or lectures that you personally deliver – or after dinner, when the homework is finished and it's almost lights out. Car trips are good, too, if you, the driver, can tolerate thinking and driving at the same time. But, to begin this game in the right spirit, ask your kids when they would like to play it – give them the choice of during dinner, after dinner, in the car next Sunday, or some other time you suggest. Remember, for a lot of kids, totally open-ended questions are yucky.


From the book 201 Questions to Ask Your Kids by Pepper Schwartz, published by HarperResource, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright 2000 by Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

Buy the book at www.harpercollins.com.

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