Nearly any parent is familiar with, “What did you do in school today?” “Nothing.”
Perhaps especially as kids get older, parents get more curious as to what’s going on. Sometimes, it’s worry about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. Other times it’s simply to stay close or get closer to the child, knowing that Junior will soon leave the nest.
How does a parent encourage meaty conversations? As usual, no how-to article offers a foolproof formula, but these tips may help.
Make chats a regular affair. For example, make a routine of the family having dinner together during which issues are regularly raised. Or take a nightly walk with your child. Or if you don’t live with your child, have regularly scheduled phone or video chats.
Allow freedom of topic and use a light touch. For example,
Parent: So what do you feel like talking about today: the best thing that happened at school? The worst? Or something having nothing to do with school? (Three choices affords a range without overwhelming the child.)
Child: Everything’s fine.
Parent: Glad to hear it. (Even if the parent feels something’s going on, it’s wise not to push. If those chats occur regularly, chances are issues will emerge when the child is ready.) Then what do you want to talk about: friends, you, your college applications?
Create tech-free zones. Keep family mealtimes, other family and social gatherings, and children's bedrooms screen free. Turn off televisions that you aren't watching, because background TV can get in the way of face-to-face time with kids. Recharge devices overnight—outside your child's bedroom to help him or her avoid the temptation to use them when they should be sleeping. These changes encourage more family time, healthier eating habits, and better sleep.
Child: Don’t nag me. I’ll get them done.
Parent: Why do you think you’re procrastinating? (Just a bit more pushing but not so much as to harden the opposition.)
Child: I dunno. I’m busy with other stuff.
Parent: Are you a little scared of going to college, not sure where you want to go, what you want to major in, or not sure you want to go at all? Or am I just a nosy, out-of-touch parent? (Humor is needed at this point to avoid being too pushy.)
Child: Yeah, that.
Parent: Okay. If there’s an issue you feel like talking about, you know I’m here for you. You want to hear about my day? (Parent-child chats should be two-way, both to avoid it feeling like an interrogation and because kids needs to recognize that parents are people too.)
Child: I guess. (Ah, teenagers.)
Parent: I got to mentor this new employee today. She’s scared about it being her first job out of college. I told her that I was scared my first job too.
Child: Can I go do my homework now?
Parent: Sure. So much for perfect-father conversation...for tonight.
Parenting With Chronic Illness
The parent opened the door for the full range of topics but didn’t push too much, nor went into long spiels, let alone advice-giving lectures. If the child knows that check-ins are a regular affair, when s/he feels like it, s/he’ll likely bring issues up, and certainly feels s/he has a supportive parent.