When prompted by their parents, grade school kids are famously monosyllabic. And, not, they’re not trying to be difficult. Kids just don’t necessarily understand that sometimes a “yes,” “fine,” or “I don’t know” aren’t adequate responses or satisfying conclusions for their deeply invested parents. Unfortunately, the brusque answers can make a parent want to double down on the questions. But grilling a kid is the exact opposite way to get information. Subtlety, however, is the key. Along with some parental forthrightness.
“Don’t push too hard,” warns New York City child and family therapist Dr. Kathryn Smerling. “If you see you’re reaching a dead end stop.” That’s because continuing to pry can cause a kid to shut down even further and possibly make gleaning any information from them nearly impossible. After all, you can’t force a kid to communicate. That’s not really communication.
“You have to do this with a gentle touch and with a fluid touch. Nothing that’s going to be seen as ‘Mommy and daddy want you to talk so you better talk now,’” Smerling notes.
That doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t try to talk with their kids. It just means they have to employ a little cunning. Mainly, by making a regular time to talk and making it not feel like a talk. Smerling suggests setting up dedicated talk-time daily and committing 15-minutes to a conversation. But the operative word is “conversation,” she stresses.
“It has to be a two-way street,” Smerling says. “The parent talks about something that happened to them that day, so the kid isn’t on the spot.” Because when parents demand answers, they aren’t opening a dialogue. Kids are more likely to open up when parents do partly because the parent is modeling the behavior they want to see and partly because it plays on their curiosity while taking off the pressure.
How to Trick Your Grade Schooler Into Telling You Stuff
- Don’t pester a kid for answers. It will cause them to clam up even further.
- Make it a conversation by offering information about your own life.
- Make a regular time to talk but disguise the talk in an activity like a walk or a drive
- Engage in a game or roleplay before starting a conversation
- Ensure that your anecdotes are relevant to their life.
Other ways to relieve the pressure a child might feel include disguising the conversation in another activity, like a walk or a car ride. Driving is known to be particularly useful for some parents thanks in part to seating arrangements. “Being in the car with a child, you’re in the front and they’re in the back and sometimes that’s a good way to talk because they don’t have to look at you,” Smerling says, adding that she doesn’t consider the anthe most ideal method for communication. “You don’t have that eye to eye.”
Smerling also suggests a few tricks of the psychological trade that might get a kid talking. She often starts with some interactive play with a child. Once the play is established she’ll start the conversation with an anecdote she hopes will prompt her playmate to respond. The prompt might start out, “Today I heard … “ and end with, “have you heard of anything like that?”
“Or I’ll play a detective game,” Smerling says, which involves asking the child what problem or mystery they want to solve. “You put on an actual detective hat and a spyglass.”
Roleplay, in fact, is a fine way to get a child to communicate. Much of the reason that it helps to draw a child out is that roleplaying creates an experience. And children are less about words in elementary school than they are about doing. The experience is that much better when the play and the relevant conversation connect with their life. “First you have to establish a relationship and rapport,” Smerling says. “You have to make it relevant and you have to make it experiential. If it’s not relevant and not experiential it’s not going to work.”
And if it’s not working, then you’re back to badgering a kid for answers. “And it’s all about your ego at that point,” Smerling says.