Creating a Rhythm that Helps your Kids Open Up on Their Terms

Every day now, I wait for my five-year-old to come home on the bus. I can see him stretching to peek out the window as it pulls around the corner. When he steps off, his cheeks are red from the heat, and his face is covered in his snack. I cross the street, and take his hand and his backpack. We wait for the bus driver to give us the ‘two-fingered signal’ (yes-it’s a thing) to cross, and we start our walk home. It’s our new rhythm.

About 18 months ago, when it suddenly came to our attention that we’d have a kindergartener soon, my husband and I began to talk about this approaching season and what we wanted for our schedule. One of our priorities became getting him off of the bus every day. So we solicited grandparents, rearranged work schedules, and mapped out calendars so that we could make it happen.

At the time, I had a pretty clear picture of what I thought these little walks home would look like. It would be his chance to tell me exactly what happened. What he felt. How he felt about what he felt. If he understood the teacher’s directions. And if he was the BEST one at understanding the teacher’s directions. No siblings or distractions. Just me and him talking about his day.

The first few days, I tried to give him some quiet as we strolled. But by the time we’d gone a few steps, inevitably I’d already asked him two or three times, ‘How was your day?’ ‘Did you have a good day, buddy?’ ‘How was school?’

If you’ve been a parent, teacher, friend, or generally smart person for very long, you probably understand that the universal response to this kind of question is, ‘good.’ Every kid has a ‘good’ day at school every day, right? I should know.

As a teacher, I used to encourage my parents to read the novels their children were assigned. Study chlorophyll. Think about the Cold War. Anything to avoid the ‘good’, when I knew they were desperate for details. I told them, ‘If your kid is going to be inundated with it, why not use what they’re learning as a starting point for your conversations?

So every day for the past few weeks, we’ve gone on the walk. And every day, I’ve tried to take my own advice. ‘What’d you think about the art room?’ ‘Did you like any of the books in the media center?’ But all I got was, ‘good.’ It turns out my expert advice wasn’t as brilliant as I thought.

Then last week after bedtime, he wanted to open up a little bit. About the chicken nuggets in the cafeteria, and the fact that there are three slides on the playground. And that there’s a thing called a mouse on the computer that he’d never seen before. It wasn’t about anything earth shattering, and he didn’t want to say any more. And it didn’t happen on ‘the walk.’ But that’s ok.

I’m not sure if I’m asking the right kinds of questions. Or if I’m asking too many or not enough. But I do know that I want to keep making room for those conversations. I want our rhythm to be consistent so that it’s possible for him to think and rest quietly, knowing that he can talk on his own time. Even though it may not be just like I pictured.

For my fellow question askers, here are some tips I’m practicing:

1. Don’t force it. Be patient and eventually they’ll open up. They love you and want to tell you everything. It might just take a little time for them to process it themselves first.

2. Ask better questions. Often children have a hard time answering, ‘How was your day?’ Help them gather their thoughts with simpler questions first like, ‘What happened in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ today?’, or ‘What kind of stuff is in the science lab?’, or ‘Who’d you sit by at lunch?’

3. Give them time. Often you’ll find your best conversations happen when they are procrastinating or you’re tired. Let it happen anyway, and enjoy the fruits of those labors that seemed in vain.

4. Stick with the Rhythm. If you’ve created space to just be with your children, they’ll feel more comfortable opening up on their terms. Spend quality time watching a show together or riding in the car quietly. Over time, that space will give them the freedom to talk without feeling pushed.