It's the end of the school day, and you are seeing your child for the first time after being apart since breakfast. For a parent or guardian, this is an exciting moment to reconnect and hear about the day. There are many articles online about how adults can start conversations with kids to get some good dialogue going though some miss the mark by offering only a list of questions to ask. For parents looking to create dialogue with their child, there are many avenues to developing this flow, and having a wide array of options is helpful. Ultimately, it's the relationship with your child that matters, and developing dialogue is both a lifelong process and a continuously rewarding endeavor.
Begin with empathy. Consider the notion that your child needs to transition from the school day to the home day and may not be ready to download a synthesis of important events right away. Kids sometimes need to chat about "meaningless" items before moving to the meaningful. Sometimes, silence itself is beneficial and allows for the mental gearshift into conversation. Allowing things to evolve can be just as effective as trying to jump start them. Your child's temperament, mood, and experiences from the day can all influence what works.
Eye contact, or lack thereof, is worth considering. Some kids are much more comfortable chatting while looking out the car window or staring down the trail while dog walking than sitting across from an adult and looking directly at each other. Parent carpool drivers are excellent listeners, especially since kids often start to "forget" they are there and carry on with relatively unfiltered conversation.
Starting small is great. A conversation that starts about a shoe, a backpack, some food, the music on the stereo, the weather, or what's for dinner can get the flow started and morph organically into a deeper nugget of reflection or sharing. Starting with a compliment can also get things going and set a positive tone.
Smart questions are key. If you ask your child a question to which a single syllable reply can suffice, such as "yep," "no," or "fine," that may be all that is shared. Questions that open up space for the sharing of a story, moment, or anecdote are usually more successful. Also, what is your child most interested in talking about? Starting there helps your child feel they have solid place in the dialogue, which can then move to something deeper.
Keep the dialogue flowing. Resist the temptation to start to give advice, and instead, force yourself to simply ask another follow up question to keep the conversation going. You can always ask your child if they want advice in a given moment, which is empowering and builds trust. You can also choose not to ask that question and supply some advice if you feel compelled to shift to that mode. Just be judicious. Advice can feel like cold water being thrown on a cheery campfire, so use it sparingly.
Reciprocity builds relationship. Want to find out the funniest thing that happened in your child's day? Share a funny moment from yours. Want to learn what surprised your child? Share a short surprising moment from earlier in your morning.
Keep things positive. If your child is struggling with something, be a listener and help your child consider actions to take. Then, shift to things you know are in your child's "happy zone." Provide descriptive praise pointing out specific decisions or actions your child undertook that made you proud. Focus on little things, too; a happy life is a series of many small decisions and choices that do not always feel important in the moment.
Other resources: How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk is a masterwork for parents, teachers and coaches, and contains numerous sample dialogues. If you haven't read this, move it to the top of your list. It even comes in audiobook!
Your child will always need you to be "on the other end of the rope," even when there is some significant push and pull in later years. Building rapport and comfort with dialogue is one of the the most rewarding, and productive, ways to spend your energy. Happy chatting!