The kids loved it so much we had to limit the questions to two or three a night. —Allison Prince
Like most parents, Alison Prince of Kaysville, Utah, wants a strong family. Making time to connect with her kids, she believes, is essential for realizing this goal. But time for meaningful connection is hard to come by as she balances being the co-founder of the popular women's blog howdoesshe.com and a full-time mother to four busy children ages 3 to 11.
Prince decided to start a dinner discussion ritual to ensure the family had a few minutes each day just to talk. "I wrote down hundreds of questions and put them in a jar," said Prince. "Each night at dinner we pick out questions and talk about them." The jar worked like magic. "The kids loved it so much we had to limit the questions to two or three a night," she said.
From the question jar Prince has learned fun things about her kids, their favorite animals and dream vacations, but also things they struggle with.
One night the question "if you were a shape which shape would you be and why" came up. The Prince kids responded with various answers. Triangle! Square! When it came time for her 7-year-old daughter to answer she said, "circle." Her response when asked why: "Because I am fat."
The Princes sat for a moment in stunned silence. "It's heartbreaking to learn that this is how your child feels about herself," Prince said. Still, good has come from it. "We understand her better," she said, and "now can give her the support and encouragement she needs to develop a positive body image. We may never have learned this about (her) if not for the question jar. It is literally helping us be better parents to our children."
Just talking with kids is the most effective way for parents to be involved in their children's lives, said Douglas Willms, director of the Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy at the University of New Brunswick. The benefits of parent-child conversation aren't limited to family unity, however. Studies show it improves kids' academic performance in math and reading, enhances their verbal skills and helps parents teach their values, according to Dr. Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist and founder of the website ahaparenting.com Aha! Parenting.com.
And while family talk time is essential, the reality is that drumming up conversation in the midst of the chaos of an average Tuesday night can be a challenge.
Here are some tips from experts to help families get their talk on.
One way to get the ball rolling is to ask simple, abstract questions. "If your family doesn't have a culture of open communication, don't expect your kids to bare their souls right off the bat," Markham said. Start out with questions like, "If you could have dinner with any person in history, who would it be and why?" If directing the conversation toward school is the priority, try asking, "If you could make up a perfect teacher, from scratch, what would he or she be like?"
Open-ended low-stakes questions work well because they invite discussion without being too close to home, Markham said. Teenagers aren't likely to feel their privacy is being violated when asked what their favorite book is. Another important aspect of these types of questions is they are general enough that everyone in the family can contribute, from the 3-year-old to the visiting great aunt.
Bite your tongue
As kids open up, some of the things they share will be upsetting.
"It's natural to want to fly off the handle when your child tells you that everyone in their biology class cheats on the unit finals," Markham said. It is crucial, however, that parents find ways to moderate their reactions and avoid the impulse to lecture. "How the parent reacts determines the child's willingness to open up in the future."
When listening to her three teenaged children, Markham makes a habit of covering her mouth with her hand. "It's a physical reminder to listen first," she said. Of course this does not mean parents should shrink away from teaching kids about what is right and wrong. "Our kids share things with us because they want to hear our opinions and get our guidance," she said. "When they know we have really listened to them and understand their position, we are in a powerful position to share our values and encourage them to be examples to others."
"How was your day?"
"What did you learn at school?"
Sound familiar? When getting kids to open up is like pulling teeth, don't take it personally. Chances are it's just a stage. "Withholding information is a way children assert their independence," said Peter Sheras, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.
"(Kids) start to realize that they have information their parents want," Markham said, "and that information is a form of power."
When kids are reluctant to open up, the worst thing a parent can do is try to force them to share, Markham said. One suggestion she has for parents of reluctant talkers is to be the parent who volunteers to ferry kids to and from activities. "When all the kids are in the car, they'll talk," she explains. "I tell parents just to listen and refrain from inserting themselves into the conversation."
When the friends are dropped off, parents have an opportunity to ask their child about the conversation they had with their friends. For example a parent might ask, "Johnny said X, do you agree with him?" This can open the way for conversation.
"The child won't feel like you are invading their privacy because they were talking right in front of you," she said. Additionally, the car seems to be an easy place for people to talk. "It may be because no eye contact is required, and for whatever reason that feels more comfortable," she said.
Questions for kids
For ages 3 to 5:
What is the first thing you do when you get to preschool?
Would you rather play inside or outside? Why?
What was the nicest thing you did for someone today?
What was the nicest thing someone did for you?
What is your favorite song to sing?
What will you remember most about today?
What are you looking forward to tomorrow?
Tell me the names of your friends?
What do you do if you are upset or unhappy at preschool?
If you drew a picture of how your day went, what would it be?
For ages 6 to 12:
What makes a good friend?
What could you teach me that you learned today?
How do you choose who to sit with at lunch, on the bus, or in class?
What makes a good day? What makes a bad day?
What was the most interesting thing you learned today? What questions did you ask?
If you got one wish about school about would it be?
What have you learn that you wonder how you would use?
What song best describes your day?
If you were the teacher, what would you do differently? What would you keep the same?
What is your biggest goal this year?
For 12 and up:
What is your earliest memory?
If we could go anywhere on vacation, where would you choose? Why?
What is your idea of an ideal day?
If you were invisible where would you go and what would you do?
What is your favorite book or movie? Why? What do you think the take home message of this book/movie is?
If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be? Why?
On a scale of 1-10, how strict are the parents in this family? What is the ideal number?
What are some things that make our family unique?
What traits do you admire most in other people? In yourself?
What kinds of lies do your friends tell their parents? Is it ever ok to lie? Why don't they tell their parents the truth?