My kids are fairly young, all under 8 years old. I am not a helicopter parent and I actually enjoy the chaos of childhood (the chaos of dinner: not so much).
But while I do enjoy their little kid cuteness and the sheer joy they bring, I am also mindful that in terms of preparing them for life I have a window of opportunity. I have the most effect on them right now, before they start getting swept up in the maelstrom of adolescence.
Part of what that means at this young age is building the bridge and habit of communication that will help our relationship in the future. This is more than simply answering their questions or asking them how their day is going.
I want them to practice thinking about what they are doing, being a little self-reflective, as well as being able to put that into words. Good communication is a skill that needs to be learned, not an innate trait.
And more immediately, good communication is the key to ensuring that you can help your kid when they begin navigating life on their own.
The immediate goal is simply for them to get used to talking to my wife and myself about what is going on in their lives. With this in mind, every day we ask them these four questions during dinner:
- Was anything bad about today? Anything that made you feel sad, or scared, or bored, or uncomfortable, or annoyed?
- Was anyone bothering you today? Adult, kid, whomever?
- What was the best part of the day?
- Who did you enjoy interacting with today?
I came up with these questions and the order in which I ask them very deliberately. l go into that in more detail down below. But first, to contrast, let’s look at two of the usual questions that parents tend to ask.
Don’t reinforce reluctance to communicate
The key to my 4 questions is their specificity. The seeds of teenage behavior are planted at an early age and when you ask questions that are too vague or require an effort to answer you are setting up a pattern of reluctance to engage. For example:
What did you do at school? Turn that around. What if someone asked you what you did at work today? That would take some effort to even remember and then additional effort to think about what you should say.
What is too much detail? What is too vague? What of the various things I did are important enough to talk about? Which will the other person care about?
It’s a lot of work to answer something this open-ended. It’s a lazy question that puts all the onus on the person answering and as such is very annoying.
How was your day? The pattern to the answer for this question is almost always negative. Even in popular entertainment, when the answer to this question is positive it is usually just a dismissive “fine” and doesn’t really lead to further conversation.
Only when it’s negative do we give detail. When we have a problem or a bad day an want to vent. So by asking this, we are encouraging our kid to talk only about what is going wrong.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it could set up a pattern where all you talk about is the bad stuff and that could potentially tarnish your communication relationship with negativity. I want to share their joys not just their pains.
Why these four questions?
In contrast our four questions offer both structure and specificity.
They start off by getting at critical information early (ie anything that may indicate abuse, bullying, struggling in general).
We then get to positive information when the conversation has warmed up a bit so that it flows better.
Finally it ends with something that is both easy to answer and not that important so we’re not overtaxing the interaction.
1. Was anything bad about today? Anything that made you feel sad, or scared, or bored, or uncomfortable, or annoyed?
In other words, tell me about your negative emotions for the day. It’s good to share them and it gives them an opportunity to explore their feelings. This can then lead to a discussion about how to deal with a potentially troublesome situation before it gets out of hand.
I start with the bad stuff first because I want to make sure we at least touch on that in case the conversation gets derailed before we get to something they need my help with.
Also if there is something that they are excited to tell me about, by waiting on that we start the interaction with them eager to continue it. It’s a positive reinforcement that lays down a pattern of wanting to talk.
2. Was anyone bothering you today? Adult, kid, whomever?
More than just a negative experience, was there any one bullying them or messing with them in a way they don’t like, even if it was minor. Or was there any inappropriate behavior from an adult.
The pattern is that I am on their team and they can tell me things that may seem uncomfortable.
Kids can be reluctant to talk about times they felt powerless or embarrassed by someone else. By making it a regular habit it becomes more run of the mill and thus less intimidating.
And since we ask these questions at the dinner table, the kids all get models of how to behave from each other. It reinforces the sense of the family as a team.
3. What was the best part of today?
I don’t ask “what was good” since maybe nothing was really that good. But even if things were all bad, the thing that is the least bad was the best part of the day.
Fundamentally its about finding out a little about the what brings them joy.
This is often where they get the most excited and where the brain track really gets bedded down that communication with your parents is a good thing. Like I said, my kids are young but these conversations have started to reveal what they really like to do. What is starting to drive them.
I ask these after what is bad because then the last thing they are talking about is what was good. So the last feeling they take away from our interaction is a positive one.
4. Who did you enjoy interacting with today?
In other words, who are their friends and why? This also helps with getting to know what your kid likes in other people which is a good idea of what they like in themselves.
I leave this one for last because at this point they sometimes want to just finish up the conversation. So if they phone in the answer to this, that’s okay. The important questions have already been asked.
But I said five questions, right? These four questions we usually ask during dinner time. The last one I ask at the end of the day
5. Can I wash your butt?
I ask this question while I am giving them a bath. I reinforce to them that their body is their body and no matter who it is, even me as their father, anyone needs permission to touch them down there.
I started this from about 3 years old onwards. Start too young and it becomes habit for them to just say “yes” without thinking about it.
Even when they are older, “yes” can start to be an automatic response so I encourage them to say “no”, in which case they wash themselves. But I am laying down the circuitry in their brain that recognizes that they are the master of themselves.
Habit, habit, habit
Fundamentally, you begin to raise teenagers the moment your child starts talking. Wanting to communicate is a natural impulse, but how to communicate is learned and you need to start way before you actually need to communicate.
If you lay down an unconscious basal foundation of strong communication that lasts no matter how many times the conscious interaction may get tense then navigating your children’s transition to adulthood will be less fraught.
The more positive patterns of behavior and interaction you set up when your kids are very young, the easier it becomes when they start dealing with the swirl of emotions of later life.