If you really want to know how a kid’s day was, don’t ask when they get home. Ask when they’re still in the family car. Why? As clinical psychologist Dr. Laura Markham explains, getting information out of kids is easier when questions are posed in an unexpected (and confined) context. Though car conversations have become something of a cultural norm over the years, a crossover can still wrongfoot a reluctant sharer. Whether they’re in the front or back, kids in cars have nowhere to go and no habits to hide behind. They don’t have to answer, but they tend to do so anyway–maybe because eye contact is impossible and that makes everything a bit easier.
Still, none of that matters if the first question is, “How was your day?” Parents who follow that line of questioning can expect a dismissive “fine” followed by a long pause. It’s just too broad a topic. Markham says specificity is key.
“Once in the car, ask for the highlights of the day with a focused question. That helps your child hone in on something to tell you about. Otherwise, too many things happened in the course of their day for them to sift through and choose one,” she says.
“What was the best thing that happened at school today?” leads to a conversation about an event that can spiral into a broader conversation about school dynamics. “Who did you sit with at lunch?” provides an opportunity to talk about social interactions without going straight there. “What’s your favorite camp activity?” invites a discussion of passions. In all cases, the key is to flank the child emotionally.
And if those don’t work, Markham suggests something along the lines of “Did you have a substitute teacher again today?” It’s an innocuous yes-or-no question, but it gets a conversation going. It’s a trojan horse. Some kids will see that move coming and get annoyed by even a gentle interrogation, but resistance can be met with deeper listening. Enough scraps make a meal.
“If your child isn’t open to talking, make an observation about what they told you, and wonder aloud about it: ‘You look tired. I wonder if school wore you out today.’ ‘That sounds like a tough situation. I wonder what you could do now. I wonder if there’s some way to make this better.’”
After prioritizing and listening, Markham says the final key to an engaging drive-time conversation is checking your tone. Overreacting or lecturing kids is like pressing a big, red conversational self-destruct button.“Your child does not want you to solve their problem,” Markham explains. “That makes them feel incompetent.” Your child may be very upset about something that you think is an overreaction. Take their feelings seriously and commiserate, and they’ll be more likely to keep opening up to you.”
What kids really want, says Markham, is for parents to echo their feelings.
“Acknowledge their words by repeating them and acknowledge the emotions they are expressing by resonating in your response,” she says. “If your child says, ‘I hate that teacher,’ you don’t have to agree. Instead say, ‘It sounds like you’re pretty mad at Ms. Jones.’”
It’s not about injecting yourself into your child’s day, problem, or story, it’s about taking their energy and guiding them towards helpful conclusions. Car conversations are like Judo; they just require more concentration. Staying distraction-free and listening intently are always important, but for Markham, the biggest inhibitor to kids opening up in conversation is parents who try to solve all their problems.
These techniques also work outside the context of daily routines like school drop-offs, for example, following a big event like the return trip home from a first sleepover or month at sleepaway camp. They just take a little bit more work.
“What matters is re-establishing the connection that was not operating while you were apart. No child wants to feel like you’re grilling them,” Markham says. “What they want is to feel like you love them, are glad to see them, and are understanding when they do choose to share something.”