Q: School is starting back and my goal for this year is to increase communication with my child, particularly about what’s going on in school. When I’ve tried in the past, usually all I get are shrugs and one-word answers. What can I do to improve that?
This is a great goal to start off the school year. In my experience, students who communicate openly with their parents tend to perform better, possess better coping skills and be happier than those who don’t.
Unfortunately, as children mature they gradually lose interest in communicating with their parents, especially about school.
This is partly because they are trying to create an identity for themselves that exists apart from you. It’s a way to declare their independence. Anything that restricts that will be met with cautious distaste, so you should make sure that your desire for communication is not just a secret way of controlling your child.
If a child tells you something about school and your response is to immediately: A) Fix it for her. B) Tell her how to fix it. C) Use it to dig for more personal information, you will end up making communication more difficult.
Instead, the most important thing you must do is simply listen. I’m not saying that you should never offer advice or even, sometimes, admonishment, but you should be strategic about when you employ those strategies. God gave us two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.
Of course you can’t listen if they don’t talk, so how can you get them going? I have an old-timey water pump in my backyard. If you pump it, nothing will come out until you pour water into it. Then the water will start to flow out in buckets. So if you’re asking your child about school and nothing is coming out, prime the pump.
Do this by asking questions with the same substance as the answers you want. If you ask questions that demand a one-word answer (“Did you have a good day? Did you learn anything?”), you will get one-word answers. If you ask vague or broad questions (“What did you do today? How was school?”), you will receive vague and broad answers.
But if you ask a question that demands an expository, descriptive or narrative answer, that is what you will usually get. It might take a few follow-up questions to get the words flowing (just like priming a pump), but if you stick to it, they will come.
For example, instead of “What did you do today?” ask “What happened in English class?” Don’t accept “nothing” for an answer. That is at best a deflection, at worst a lie.
If you want to know what your kids are learning, have them teach it to you. “So you learned about fractions? What are those?” As they talk, play the role of the student by asking questions about what isn’t clear.
If you want to know about their relationships, ask them about people. “Why do you like Mrs. Smith? How did you become friends with Karen? Why would Billy say that?”
If you want details, ask them to describe. “Describe your homeroom for me. What do you do there every day?”
Another recommendation: all screens should be dark. This goes for you, too. Parents are just as easily distracted by phones and TV as children are.
Keep in mind this is not an overnight process. Open communication should be your goal for the year, and it might take a whole year to accomplish.
The critical thing is to keep pumping. The moment you stop, the well will go dry, and you’ll have to prime it all over again. Don’t let them shut you out. You shouldn’t permit your kids to cut off communication with you any more than you would permit them to blow off their homework.
I lost my mother when I was in middle school. Like most parents, there were many times when all she wanted from me was to talk to her. It didn’t matter what it was about. She just wanted to hear my voice and see my eyes and know that for a few minutes she held my attention. In truth, what she wanted more than anything was a real relationship with me.
When she was gone and I suddenly realized all the sands in our hourglass had run out, I regretted each and every time I had kept silent or shut her out to go follow my childish whims.
I live with that regret to this day, so I understand why communication ought to be valued by both children and parents far above most other things that we choose to prioritize. If we just put half as much energy into communicating with our children as we do in supplying them with fleeting diversions and useless toys, we would experience double the joy and a fraction of the regret.
So I urge you to keep pumping and don’t falter for even a day. By giving up, you might be relinquishing much more than just a goal. You might be letting go of a relationship.