My son Derek has always been a talker. We remain convinced to this day that his first word was "bubble," even though we know it defies logic and all research on linguistic development. Derek started speaking early, and pretty much hasn't stopped in 13 years. (New parents: Be careful what you wish for. Sometimes silence is really golden.)
I remember picking Derek up from preschool, where I would barely say, "How was preschool today?" before he would start chattering on about his day. "We ate grilled cheese. Charlie and I played rocket ship. Look! (taking off his shoe) I brought home lots of sand again!"
I would just sit back and do the parent thing—um-hmming, wowing, and oohing in all the right places. Secretly though, I patted myself on the back for being such a good parent, having the forethought to hang that black-and-white mobile above his crib (which was supposed to stimulate...something good I can't remember now) and slogging through the nightly readings of Max's Bedtime and Moo, Baa, La La La! Look at the little Winston Churchill I have raised!
Somewhere around third grade, though, all talking about school ceased abruptly. Derek had entered the "too cool" phase of development (one that I'm still waiting for him to exit). Suddenly, my standard line of questioning just didn't cut it anymore. Here is an example of a typical conversation in my house from that time:
- Me: How was your day?
- Derek: (grunts)
- Me: Is that good or bad?
- Derek: It was fine.
- Me: What did you do?
- Derek: Nothing.
Have you ever experienced this? If not, do please reward yourself for all that in-utero classical music playing with a cupcake. If not, read on.
Without warning, my little chatterbox stopped the chatter. I knew that, on a developmental level, this was normal: a byproduct of his brain changing and growing; of leaving a more egocentric stage and realizing that the world might not just entirely revolve around him. And as adults, aren't we are the same way? After a long day at work, I'd rather relax on the couch with my beverage of choice than give anyone a recounting of my day. After a particularly stressful day, I also need time to process internally before sharing. Kids are no different.
Knowing all that didn't make things any less frustrating, however. So each day I kept asking the same questions and receiving the same answers. And wouldn't you know it, the same Groundhog Day-esque loop continued to unfold.
Then, one evening, my sister came over for dinner. "Do you like your new teacher?" she asked Derek.
Here we go, I thought. Enter my son the mime, stage left.
"Yes," he said. I rolled my eyes.
Then my sister asked, "So, if there was a zombie apocalypse, do you think your school would survive it?"
And that’s when the floodgates opened. In 10 scant minutes, I learned about his teacher, his classmates, his principal, the lunchroom strife caused by the autocratic noon duty supervisor, and the multilayered, elaborate rules of Wall Ball. Derek provided a storehouse of observations in more detail than I'd gotten in weeks of probing, questioning, and mining through the papers he brought home for clues.
As a former teacher, I knew that asking the right questions could unlock the actual thinking of my students, but even in the classroom it's not as easy as it sounds. Many of us just default to closed questions instead of open ones, which typically get what we need when speaking with adults. Kids are a little different. Early in my career, it was a constant, conscious effort to stop asking, "What is the answer?" questions (closed ones) and instead ask "How do you know?" questions (open ones) instead.
(For more question alternatives to "How was your day?" check out our parent guides.)
And once again, I never thought to apply that knowledge to parenting. But since that zombie question revelation, I've tried to make my daily inquiry into Derek's life a little more creative when he's acting as if he's been put under a gag order. Now that he’s a teenager, I find it's still incredibly helpful.
All parents and teachers need a whole bunch of tricks in their bag, so here are some more tips for getting your little clam to open up.
- Keep your opinions in check: Just like adults, your child wants to be heard and understood. As parents, it is our default to fix and solve. Sometimes, we even jump to the solution before we have heard the whole story (I'm so guilty of that!). So, before you jump in with your fix, listen to everything. Allow plenty of time for your child to process and share before you offer up your sage advice. It might just be that your child wanted you to know (and empathize with) how they feel, not how you would so brilliantly make it all better.
- Put your phone down: It's hard to model that you are truly listening and valuing your child's feelings when you're checking work email. Even when they are talking about something that isn't a problem and you zone out on your phone, you're showing that you're not the best listener in the world. So put that technology down and be present with the good stuff, and they will come to you with the difficult things also.
- Find that perfect time and make it a routine: It would never fail: I'm finally comfy on the couch with my book and have just made it through the first paragraph when, suddenly, Derek comes in and is Mr. Sparkling Conversation (this is usually because he has to turn electronics off an hour before bed. Coincidence?). I spent so many weeks getting annoyed with his timing, until I realized maybe it was me that had to push my peaceful couch time back a half-hour and create that before-bed ritual of talking to my kid. For you, it may not be bedtime, it may be in the car or over breakfast. But find that moment and make it a thing.
...Is it too late to return that black-and-white mobile?