Tired of asking your kids to put down their phones and look at you when you're talking with them?
Guilty of checking your own phone and half-listening when they’re trying to talk to you?
Wish your child didn’t always answer “Nothing” when you ask, “What did you do at school today?”
Wish family meals were a time for positive, meaningful conversation instead of complaining, bickering, and gulping down food in order to leave the table as soon as possible?
Not happy when you and your spouse go out to dinner and phones intrude on what you hoped would be a chance to reconnect?
Why do we spend so much time staring at our screens and so little really talking to each other?
Could it be that most of us have never learned the art of conversation? How could we acquire that skill and teach it to our kids?
A personal story
When our first son was 13, our conversations were characterized by a pattern familiar to most parents. I asked the questions, and he usually gave one-word answers.
“How was school?”
“How’d the game go?”
One day I said, “You know, I ask all the questions. I’d appreciate it if you’d ask me a question for a change.”
He smiled and said, “Okay, Dad, how are your courses going?”
I realized I had never told him anything about my college teaching, even though that was a big part of my life.
“Thanks for asking,” I said, with genuine appreciation. I told him about the courses I was teaching that semester—how three were going well and why one was a real stinker.
Then I asked him how his courses were going in junior high. It felt like a real conversation.
After that, whether we were cleaning up the kitchen or just had 5-10 minutes in the car, we’d do what we came to call “back-and-forth questions.”
I’d ask him a question, then it would be his turn to ask me one. We would ask about anything we were curious about, ideally an open-ended question that would bring out thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
- What’s been the best and the worst part of your day so far? What made it so?
- What happened today that you didn’t expect?
- What’s on your mind these days?
- We’d do this for at least a couple of rounds.
- If he wasn’t sure what to ask me, I’d say, “Hey, you can ask me the same question I just asked you.” Soon he was coming up with his own questions.
A new family tradition
Back-and-forth questions became a family tradition. I was always struck by the thoughts and information it elicited, even in a short period of time.
My wife and I soon began doing back-and-forth questions with each other, whether we were out for dinner or doing a tedious chore like weeding the brick path in the back yard:
- What have you been thinking about this week that we haven’t had a chance to talk about?
- What did you get done this week that you feel good about?
- What’s a project you have in mind for this summer?
No matter how much communicating we had done during the week, back-and-forth questions made conversation more interesting and brought out things we hadn’t yet had a chance to share.
How to Introduce Back-and-Forth Questions with Your Kids
Don’t give up if your kids resist back-and-forth questions at first. You can say:
Let's give this a try. Being able to make conversation is a skill that can make any relationship better. People who study communication say the secret of being a good conversationalist is being interested in the other person. Some people just talk about themselves. Boring! The way to show sincere interest in somebody else is to ask good questions that draw them out.
Here are 20 questions we’ve found interesting and fun in our family. Some we’ve used in one-on-one conversations; some we’ve posed as “topics” at family meals, where everyone takes a turn responding:
20 Conversation Starters
1. What are you grateful for today?
2. What’s some good news you’d like to share?
3. What’s something nice you did for someone today?
4. What’s something nice someone did for you?
5. What is something you learned today—in school or from life?
6. What was an interesting conversation you had today?
7. What’s something you’re looking forward to?
8. What’s something you’re worried about?
9. What do you like most about being part of this family?
10. What do you wish we did more of as a family?
11. What’s the hardest thing about being your age? The best thing?
12. What is a goal you’re working on?
13. What's something a family member did for you recently that you appreciated?
14. What's a problem you're having that you'd appreciate help with?
15. If you could be granted three wishes, what would they be?
16. What are two things other people can do to make you happy?
17. How can somebody help you get out of a bad mood?
18. What does “success” mean to you?
19. How do you know if somebody is a true friend?
20. Who is someone you really admire?
Thomas Lickona is a developmental psychologist and longtime professor of education whose eight books on character education include Raising Good Children and Educating for Character. A past president of the Association for Moral Education, he received the “Sandy” Award for Lifetime Achievement in Character Education. Republished with the author’s permission from Psychology Today.