Written by Tiiu Lutter, Director of Development and Family Therapist

We’re spending a lot of time with our children, for many parents, more than normal. It can be exhausting to stay on top of work and home responsibilities while providing childcare without the normal supports we have leaned on – summer camp, sports, and all of the things that gave us a second to focus on our own needs. Since we do have them at home, this extra time together is a great opportunity to improve our connection and strengthen our relationships. One of the best ways to do this is through meaningful conversations. Having on-going conversations about all sorts of things help children to feel more comfortable turning to you in the future when they are facing an uncomfortable issue, whether regarding drugs, mental health, issues with friends, sex, bullying, or anything else. One of the best ways to build connection is to do this is through meaningful conversations. This isn’t always easy with children, but one catchphrase we use here at Child Guidance a lot with parents is, “talk early, talk often.” One of the most productive ways to keep kids of all ages engaged is through open-ended questions.

An open-ended question is anything that doesn’t have a set yes or no answer. Open-ended questions inspire deeper thinking, create a sense of closeness, and give the power of conversation to the child. Granted, it can be hard to come up with specifics, especially after a long day when you’re still contending with the endless to-do list on your desk. So, here are some ideas to get your conversations started.

When to start? You can start as soon as children can talk in sentences. Toddlers tend to find adults endlessly entertaining and can continue a simple conversation forever. Ask them to tell you more and more about anything they are playing with or that is in the room. Ask them what sounds things make, what colors they can be, how tall will they get, etc. A young child will find great enjoyment from any back and forth conversation.

5 and younger: With young children five and under, instead of asking “why,” focus on questions that involve a “who,” “what,” or “when.” Little kids don’t have a tight grasp on the concept of “why” just yet, although they do love to ask us “why.” Instead, try asking “What is your favorite?” and then follow up with, “How come?” You may be surprised how much a five-year-old can discuss their favorite color, food, or ice cream flavor. This is also your chance to learn more about your child; discovering their evolving likes and dislikes is a wonderful way to build stronger connection. When talking to children ages three and older, you can start to ask imagination driven questions like what they want to be when they grow up or what kind of animal they would like to be. A personal favorite is, “What superpower do you wish you could have?” By getting your child involved in deeper thinking, they are more likely to continue the conversation beyond a simple answer. This is also your chance for them to get to know YOU better, too! Try building off their answers by giving your own answer and explaining why.

Younger children also love “remember when” conversations. Lead the child  by asking, “Remember when we went…” Don’t worry if the answer is made up! It’s normal for children to create an answer if they can’t actually remember. You can ask “remember when” questions as recently as yesterday or last week: “Remember that big truck we saw yesterday?” or “Remember that white duck at the pond last week?” Then, go from there! Ask them what they liked, or if they were scared, or if they want to see the thing again.

Elementary School aged: With elementary school kids you can use questions to help them develop discernment and insight. Ask them what they’re grateful for, what makes them happy, or what was the best thing that happened to them today. Consider adding daily highs and lows into your dinner check-in. Sharing highs and lows creates an opportunity for you to share as well. Whether it was something as big as getting a dream promotion, or something as aggravating as breaking a shoe, you can model for your children the reality and successes of your own adult life and teach them how you overcome adversity and define success.

Another great trick is to ask your child what they’re excited about. A child’s enthusiasm has no limits, and they are often incredibly interested in the small things that adults can easily overlook. By asking a child about what they are looking forward to, we can gain perspective and improve the experiences in our own lives. Rediscovering little things, such as the food they will be serving at a family party or the fireflies that will come out when it gets dark out, can help us to savor this extra time we have with our children right now.

Some other question ideas:

  • How they think something works, whether it be a machine or a bird’s ability to fly.
  • What do they think happens next in the story you’re telling/book they’re reading/movie you just watched.
  • Compare their predictions with actual outcomes. Which ending do they like better, and why?
  • What makes a good friend?
  • Name three wishes for themselves, for the world, for you or a friend

Teens and tweens: Teens and tweens are tougher because they naturally pull away from adults when peers begin to matter more than parents. Teens will try to throw up road blocks with the great adolescent responses, “fine” and “whatever.” That said, older kids tend to not be able to resist “would you rather” questions. These can be as ridiculous or serious as you’d like. Anything from “Would you rather clean porta-potties for a year and make a million dollars or live in a penthouse and on $100 a month?” to “Would you rather only be able to eat dog food for the rest of your life or spend one year in jail?” can foster deep conversations about life. Another fun game is to describe something in five words or less. The object of description could be themselves, their best friend, the movie you just watched, truly anything! You can then flip it around and give them 5 words and see if they can guess who or what you’re talking about. Be curious about the things your older kids know, and explore deeper topics like what advice they would give a ten-year-old, what scares them, or what’s the hardest job in the world.

Some conversation starter examples:

  • Would you rather always be freezing cold or super hot?
  • If you could only have 5 things to take on an deserted island, what would they be? Why?
  • What is your favorite thing about your best friend?
  • Would you rather be a famous singer, actor, video gamer, or dancer?
  • Who is your favorite celebrity? What’s going on in their life right now?

The children you love are fascinating people, and this is true even as they get older, though it can be more challenging to be let into their wild and mysterious world. By creatively playing around with questions, you can look back on 2020 as a time you grew closer. Use this time and truly talk with your children. They will love you for it.

About the author: Tiiu Lutter is the Director of Development at Child Guidance and specializes in intra-family relationships, couples and adolescent concerns in her therapeutic work. With a degree from Immaculata University, Tiiu has her degree in counseling and also school guidance. She has been an IEP consultant and educational advocate and is certified in secondary guidance. She believes that every child, regardless of age, seeks to connect to their parents (and vice versa), and that with support, couples can find their way through almost every challenge, and thrive as a result. Her orientation is systemic and existential; she has a strong background in behavioral modification and reinforcement.