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How to Get Your Child to Talk

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson


It’s a problem for parents from preschool through college. We ask a question, like “What happened at school today?” and get nothing back.

Seriously. The answer is often “Nothing.”

Sometimes it’s a shrug. Sometimes it’s “I can’t remember.” But the result is the same.

We know this isn’t true. Nothing didn’t happen.  We’re just trying to make a connection, we’re not trying to pry. So why don’t children tell us how their day went?

How can we get them to tell us more?

We can ask better questions. Let’s face it, “What happened at school today?” or “How did you day go?” are questions that have lost their meaning. They’re nearly as empty of thought as saying “How do you do?” when introduced to someone new. We don’t really expect a report on a new acquaintance’s health. We’re not really asking how do you do? We’re just making small talk.

Asking a child – or anyone, really – “How was your day?” is just small talk. If it’s not meant as small talk we have to change the question.

So here are some fresh questions to try.

  • What was your favorite part of the day today?
  • Which friends did you see (or play with) today?
  • What was today’s biggest surprise?
  • What happened in English class today (or math class, or science, or PE)?
  • What was for lunch today?

You get the idea.

Notice that none of these questions can be answered with just “yes” or “no” or even a shrug. Notice that most of these questions are easy to answer or pleasant to consider. None of these ask what was the worst thing that happened or the most embarrassing moment today. Each of these is intended to remind a child of something fun.

And each is intended to not be the end of the conversation but the start of a conversation. When your child answers, ask something more or make a comment your child will appreciate. You can tell who you saw today or what your biggest surprise was. To keep a question from being just small talk, it has to be the beginning of even a short exchange.

Be open to what your child says. Be careful not to jump in with advice or a judgment. See how long you can keep the conversation going today. See if you can keep it going longer tomorrow.

If our kids aren’t talking to us, it’s up to us to make a change. Start by asking better questions.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.