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Getting Young Children to Be Communicative

How to ask the right questions to get your child to communicate with you

Gone are the days when I knew every single detail of my 6-year-old daughter's life, from when she slept to what she ate and when she pooped. In self-help language, I am learning to let go. Thank goodness it's a very gradual weaning.

In preschool her teachers drew up little info sheets about the kids' days: They went on a walk, played on the playground, and napped. I had something to work with. But in kindergarten I get, literally, nothing — until I find at the end of the week, crumpled at the bottom of her backpack, a photocopied note from her teacher listing the week's highlights.

I'm lucky now if she'll describe just one event in her school day to me. If I were to believe what she tells me, her daily life is really dull.

Me: How was school today?
Michaela: Good.
Me: What did you do?
Michaela: Mmm, nothing. Can I watch TV?

This from a child who can tell me the very complicated plot of an adventure she has constructed for her doll family, involving falls from great heights, travel across the open sea, and daring rescues.

I resigned myself to asking for help. I talked to friends. I searched the Net. I Googled "children, talk, day, nothing, school" and endless combinations thereof. I didn't find much, just a link to a site on which a school principal offers parents advice on relating to their teenagers. I read many parenting books, learning a lot about all kinds of things but not much, sadly, about this particular subject.

When I went to get my hair cut I ran into a child psychologist. Sitting in the chair ahead of me, she assured me that all kids do this. Beginning at about age 6, she explained, they keep information to themselves as a way of differentiating themselves from their parents. In effect, they're creating a separate life. Great.

She did, though, share a technique she had used with her own children. "I ask what was the most boring thing they did today," she said. That actually turned out to be a good one — until Michaela started answering it the same way: "Nothing."

Yep, pretty boring.

A friend whose kids are older said that what had always worked for her was to start the conversational ball rolling by asking her son, Tim, who he sat next to at lunch that day.

That also worked for a while.

Me: Honey, who did you sit with at lunch today?
Michaela: Ummmmm, I sat between Natalie and Chloe and then Natalie spilled her milk and then . . .

Once the door was open and she began to talk, she generally kept talking and would respond to questions, so that first question was crucial. If I was artful enough, I could get her to tell me who were her friends at school, how her teachers acted, and what they had for a snack. Progress.

Another friend recommended asking not only what was the best and worst thing that happened that day, but also what was the weirdest. That brought out some great stuff. One of the best things Michaela had to report was that she had learned to go across the monkey bars by swinging from hand to hand. The worst? Usually that someone had been mean to her, that she hadn't gotten her way, or that I made her brush her teeth in the morning. The weirdest? That she went into the boys' bathroom by mistake and didn't realize it until she came out (she was extremely worried she would repeat the mistake another day).

Another strategy I devised came from my inclination toward sarcasm, which I usually try to keep in check.

Me: What did you do today?
Michaela: Nothing.
Me: You mean you just sat around and stared at the wall? Were people allowed to go to the bathroom? Did your teacher do the same thing?

At that point she'd usually start laughing and tell me a few of the things she did in class. "No, Mommy, we had PE today and we played animal tag."

Recently she outfoxed me by resorting to what I think of as the language of feelings. When I tried my usual tricks, my daughter would respond, "I'm not comfortable talking about it right now."

It's always something. One day at a summer program she fed a giraffe. She climbed a tall ladder at a nearby zoo so that she was above the giraffe and sent food down a little tube for it to eat. When I picked her up from the trip, one of the other mothers asked if she had fed a giraffe, and Michaela said no. Much later, at home, I asked her if anyone had fed the giraffe. Yes, she said, her friend Siobhan had. And then she said that she had too. I spent the evening trying to figure out why this was such a secret. When I pressed her, she put it very simply: "I forgot." Hmmm . . . she runs into so many giraffes it slips her mind?

So I've learned to be patient.

I've caught on to something important too. After about six days of her telling me in the car on the way home that she didn't want to talk about it right now, I stopped asking about her day the minute I saw her. Now I give her some time to get home, have a snack, and, I suppose, decompress. When I finally ask, "How was your day?" the likelihood of a fuller answer improves. (Since I need time after work to regroup, it only makes sense that she does too, I guess.) In fact, not long ago I got a 15-minute chronology of the day's events, complete with her views on various classmates' personalities and abilities, and, based on that, who she had decided would be invited to her birthday and where she was going to have the party. She even shared some of her excitement about the next day: "Tomorrow we're making Thunder Cake at school!"

Sometimes she saves everything up and spills it when I'm putting her to bed at night. At this point, I don't care that she's trying to delay my inevitable departure from the room. I'm glad to listen.

And I know that since we do talk, and I do respect the boundaries she sets, she'll share the important stuff — eventually. At least, until she hits adolescence. In which case, I'm glad I read ahead in those child-rearing books.

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