It’s almost part of the routine: You pick up your son from school, he climbs into the car, you ask how it went, and he says …”Good.”
The more you probe, the less he says.
Dinner? Bedtime? Same thing.
Solution: Break up the routine a bit. Here are five great ways to get your son to open up:
1. Waaaaaait for the right moment.
Sure, you’re curious about your son’s day. But right when you pick him up after school may just be the worst time to ask about it. After a long, busy day he likely feels overwhelmed and tired, says Susan Stone Belton, a family coach in Cupertino, California, and author of Real Parents, Real Kids, Real Talk.
“When you can, wait for it,” she says. “Kids will talk—when they’re ready.”
Try this: Instead of starting off with a question, simply say something like this: “Hi, kiddo! I missed you today.” Then STOP. Let your son have a chance to initiate a conversation.
“With boys especially,” Stone Belton says, “we have to give them a minute to think. They need more time,”
If he’s still quiet after a few minutes, start with some small talk to ease into it: “Whoa, it was so windy today that my umbrella turned inside out.”
2. Ask the right questions—the more specific, the better.
Along with giving your son a buffer of time before jumping in with questions, what you ask is also key. Ask how his day went, Stone Belton says, and he’ll probably think, “I just did a thousand things today. How do I even answer that? Where do I start?”
Avoid being too general. Young kids, and boys in particular, have an easier time focusing in on specifics, she says: “A bad question: What did you do today? A better question: What happened in math today?”
Try this: Find a narrow starting point. It’s easier when you already know a little bit about what he’s doing in school, like his class schedule or the current unit being learned. To help find these kinds of conversation starters, keep an eye out for those teacher updates and school newsletters. Remember: It’s not that you’re burning to know about gym class or spelling tests. Any topic that starts them talking is a good topic!
3. Don’t just sit there—do something together.
Girls tend to be more talkative (verbal) and boys more active (physical). That means a girl is more apt to spark conversations and sit and chat for extended periods of time—whereas a boy would probably rather be doing something else.
But…you can work with that!
“It’s sometimes better to have an activity while talking with boys,” Stone Belton says. Doing something while talking gives a conversation a more casual feel and can make your son feel less “on the spot”. It also cuts down on eye contact. It may seem counterintuitive, but less eye contact can actually make for better communication.
“For younger boys, even some teenagers, eye to eye contact is tough,” says Stone Belton. “It sometimes slows down conversation.”
Try this: Walk the dog. Throw a Frisbee or baseball around. Play a video game with both of you facing the screen.
4. Lecture less, listen more.
Your secret tools: empathy and questions.
In general, the less you impose on the conversation, the easier the conversation will go—and your son can learn more from it too. “Listening is much more important than talking,” says Stone Belton.
Say you find out someone bothered your son at recess. Instead of jumping right in and trying to judge the situation or solve the problem for him, step back. “When you immediately go into a lecture mode, it shuts our kids down,” she says.
Try this: Instead, first just react with compassion. “Oh that’s too bad,” you might say. Or “Oh my! Tell me about that. What’s happening?” And then stop. Offer him the space to continue and add details.
Responding empathetically shows him you’re really listening and care about what he’s saying. This nudges him to share more of what he’s going through. When he’s upset, sympathize and commiserate. When he’s excited, get excited. “Match your enthusiasm to his enthusiasm,” Stone Belton suggests.
Then try asking some careful questions to (gently) probe for more information. “What did you do?” “Did that help?” “What would you do differently?” As you help your child think through what happened, his actions, and possible consequences, let him do most of the talking. You can guide him with questions and thoughtful reactions to his responses.
Taking over the conversation and trying to fix whatever is wrong (“why don’t you…”) has three unintended effects: It discourages him from talking more. It doesn’t teach him how to deal with the situation. And it can make him less likely to come to you with similar issues, Stone Belton says.
Allowing him to talk about things himself makes him feel more capable, that he has options, she says—and it keeps him sharing with you.
5. Take advantage of the three best times and places to get boys in grade school to talk.
- In the car. When you’re facing forward driving, and he’s hanging out in the back seat, looking out the windows or fiddling with something in the car, he doesn’t feel on the spot, Stone Belton says. “You’re not staring at your kid saying, ‘Talk to me,’ You’re not demanding it.”
- At the dinner table. Dinnertime isn’t just about nutrition, she says. “It’s a time to learn to be polite, to listen, to take turns. Everybody gets to talk and everybody gets to listen.” What if a sibling chatters away while your son just sits there taking it all in? Make space for your son by adding some balance to the conversation. Alternate who gets to talk first, or go around the dinner table taking turns with stories about your favorite part of the day. If, say, Big Sis interrupts, assure her she’ll have a chance to talk again, but tell her it’s time to practice listening. Point out that she wouldn’t like it if she were interrupted. “You really have to explain it to them.”
- At bedtime. When you’re tucking your son in, he’s winding down and maybe thinking back on the day or looking forward to the next. “It’s warm, and safe, and snuggly,” says Stone Belton. All this encourages opening up. “And he quickly learns that the more he talks, the longer he stays up,” she adds. (It’s okay—those extra minutes of connecting are so worth it for you!) So try not to rush off after a quick good-night kiss. You might be surprised.
In a nutshell: Talk to your son the way you want him to talk to you, and listen to him the way you want him to listen to you.
Being kind, not interrupting, giving your son time to initiate and respond—more than being obvious good habits, they’re the little things that make a boy open up.
Just as you gravitate to certain people—good listeners—to talk to when you want to chat, or debrief, or vent, so will your son.
Bonus: By encouraging your son to talk more, and teaching him that you’ll listen, you’ll find out more than what happened in school today. You’ll be laying the groundwork for a solid relationship that he knows he can count on. As Stone Belton says, “You want him to know that coming to mom or dad is always a good first step.”
Photos from top: LoJoLu Photograpy/Flickr; Ed Garcia/Flickr; CJ Sorg/Flickr