April 28: Questions to Spark Family Conversation
This week I want to share some strategies for encouraging conversation with your child and supporting social and emotional development. So often parents tell me that they ask their children, “How was your day?” and receive a noncommittal or uninformative response such as, “Okay,” or, “I don’t know.” While there is nothing inherently wrong with the question, we all know that asking, “How was your day?” might not lead to sharing information or generating discussion.
Many families like to talk about highs and lows of the day, and this can be a wonderful way to encourage communication. Another version of highs and lows is to have each person talk about their rose (high point of the day), thorn (low point of the day), and bud (something they are looking forward to). Here are some other questions you can ask to spark conversation and support social and emotional development:
What unexpected thing happened today and how did you handle it? This is one of my favorite questions for supporting the development of flexibility. By normalizing the fact that we all encounter unanticipated experiences every day, we can build children’s sense of their own flexibility and capability for managing the unexpected.
Do you remember a time this past week when you felt _____ (embarrassed, excited, sad, content, lonely)? When you pick one feeling and talking about a time that family members experienced that emotion, you are helping to build your child’s emotional vocabulary and normalizing the fact that we all feel a variety of different emotions throughout each day and each week. In addition, by noticing that family members often have different feelings about the same situation (for example: I felt excited to see a snake in the grass but my sibling felt afraid), you are encouraging the development of empathy and increasing your child’s awareness that other people can have feelings and reactions that are different than their own.
Can you think of a question that you asked today? What’s something that you felt curious about this week? By asking these questions you reinforce the fact that your family values curiosity and showing interest in the world.
Was there a time that you helped someone or offered support? How did the person feel when you helped them? How did you feel? This series of questions promotes kindness, caring, and empathy. By bringing attention to times that your children reached out to others, you are communicating that compassion for others is important in your family.
Have you solved a problem recently? How did you do it? When a child shares information about solving a problem, parents have an opportunity to bolster the child’s sense of independence and competence. While it may be tempting to get very excited about your child’s achievement, I recommend a more low-key response such as, “Sounds like you felt really proud of yourself when you tackled that problem,”or “I’ve noticed that you’re good at figuring things out.”
What funny or silly thing happened today? A perennial favorite that encourages a sense of fun and promotes shared moments of humor. Probably not the best question to ask at bedtime or at a time when you are hoping to establish a calm environment.
Have you tried or done anything new in the past week, or seen or heard something new? By bringing attention to the fact that life is filled with new experiences, you support your child’s sense that they have the ability to manage novel situations.
When should you ask these questions? Family mealtime can be a wonderful opportunity to ask a question and let each family member weigh in with a response. If your schedule doesn’t allow for weeknight family dinners, consider scheduling a family dinner on Friday and/or Sunday nights or plan a time that you will all eat breakfast or lunch together on the weekend. A car ride or family walk is another great opportunity to ask a question and share your answers.
What if your child doesn’t want to answer or says, ‘I don’t know’? When your family is gathered together and you ask this type of question, a great way to start the conversation is to begin by providing your own response. Particularly if you are able to show some vulnerability by being honest or talking about something tricky, you will provide a of model of shared communication with your child. Depending on your child’s age and temperament, you may have many conversations over many months where you are answering a question or talking about an unexpected part of your day and your child is listening but not sharing their own responses. If this happens, remind yourself that you are communicating important information about the fact that your family is comfortable talking about feelings and experiences: in this family, feelings matter and we talk about them.
The ideas presented here are not meant to be a checklist. Rather, I’m hoping they will encourage you to mix things up and will offer some new ways to encourage communication in your family. I recommend asking just one of these questions on any given day, trying a different question another day, and over time returning to the questions that work well for your family. I hope it will be particularly interesting to see how your children’s answers change as they grow and develop.