Fuck the “F-Word.” Parents’ most dreaded four-letter response is “fine.” As in: How was your day? F#&@. Why is the word so horrible? Because of what rarely follows it, a discussion of a child’s classes, friends, anxieties, or experiences. Engaged parents want desperately to know about their children’s days, but getting that information can be tough. Not all kids are naturally forthcoming or capable of steering a conversation. To get answers, parents have to take the wheel (often while literally driving home).
For many American parents, the drive home at the end of the day represents both an opportunity (the kid isn’t going to tuck and roll) and an obstacle. The reason it can present a problem, according to clinical psychologist and movement therapist Dr. Lori Baudino, is that getting children to open up requires some physical effort. “The child’s been away from you all day under someone else’s authority,” she explains, adding that the natural disconnect this engenders, which parents can often feel, can be destroyed with a simple hug. “This allows a parent and child to get on the same page. There’s this real sense of engagement.”
Thinking about engagement is key because parents should be helping kids regulate the transition from school to home. After all, the kids have been in a less-than-calm environment for hours. There are in a very different place energy-wise than their parents. Eye contact helps, slow breaths help, and more contact always helps.
So does making that first post-school a conversation rather than an interrogation. Parents can coax information from a kid by making an observation before launching into their interrogation. Baudino favors “I noticed…” or “I wonder…” constructions. Noticing paint on a child’s hand and wondering what happened for it to get there will spin out into a conversation about art class and create opportunities for further discussion. That’s better than a pure observation, which can be misguided or put a child on the defensive.
“Sometimes, if a parent says ‘You look tired,’ they add expectations about what they think tired looks like and that might not necessarily be accurate,” Baudino explains. So she recommends parents strive for accuracy by describing the body language of a child. Even better? Mirroring that body language. “Then the child gets a chance to communicate. They have the chance to name how they’re feeling,” Baudino says.
Mirroring is just a step away from modeling. Kids who see a parent open up about their day and their life may feel freer to open up themselves. “This doesn’t take hours. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have boundaries. It’s just supporting that dialogue,” explains Baudino. An added benefit of modeling this kind of communication is that kids will learn more about their parents, which helps create a deeper relationship.
But kids who are still reluctant to talk may need even more coaxing. But that doesn’t mean asking the same question over and over again. Badgering is largely counterproductive and can drive kids away. Baudino suggests parents get a little extra help from “magic” words. Not “please” and “thank you,” but emotional words like “happy.” As in, “I am so happy when you tell me about your day.”
“Allow time for processing and connecting without repeating over and over again,” she says. “Inserting a feeling word makes the conversation about a relationship as well.”