Asking kids the right questions – What? not Why?


“What was the best thing about school today?”, “What games did you play today?”, “Do the kids at school ever talk about boyfriends and girlfriends?” “Who did you sit with at lunch today?” or “How did the soccer game go at recess?” will get you a lot further than “How was school today?”

Questions that begin with “Why” often make kids defensive; “Why did you wear that?” won’t work nearly as well as “What do you think most of the kids will be wearing to the bbq?”

What questions are conversation openers.  Why questions are a challenge.  You want relating, not conflict.

Remember that to build a good relationship takes time.  It is made up of small things.  Using leading questions will slowly open up those lines of communication with your kids.

Get kids talking with magic conversation openers

Pay attention to the little conversation openers your kids make and respond immediately, particularly if they’re nine years old or over.

An example of a conversation opener might be something like “I don’t like school.”  You might respond with something like “What’s a thing you don’t like about school?”

With limited talk time it can be hard to hold to focus on the child’s question.   Nevertheless, how you respond changes everything.

How you respond is an indication of whether your child can rely on you to talk when he needs you.   Conversations started this way will be more important in the long run than the usual “What happened at school today” questions.


Young people who believe that their parents are too busy for them often look in other places when they’re emotionally needy.  You need to gradually build that feeling of trust and safety.

Most parents who have close relationships with their teenagers’ attribute this to their being available.  Like many teenage boys my son likes to show people how indestructible, resilient and how independent he is.  It’s tempting to give lots of advice.  Wrong move.  I’ve found it’s much better to go with the flow of conversation.  It builds rapport and has meant I’ve been there when he needs me.  It’s a part of parenting you shouldn’t miss.

Taking advantage of conversation openers will help the child believe you are available when they need you.  Of course you do actually have to be available.  More about this later.

Letting your kids know by saying nothing at all!

Say it all

When using video, phone or even texting, our tone and facial expression can determine what is really said.

Your posture also carries through to your voice.  As an experiment, try slouching in a chair, putting on a sad face then trying to sound engaged and excited.  It doesn’t work. (even when texting)

Try a calm voice and a relaxed body posture and facial expression, you’ll seem approachable to your child.

‘Mirroring’ is a way of building rapport with someone.  For example, try using the same tone of voice as your child (within reason).  This is an easy way of showing how much you like what the child is doing.

It also sends a message that you’re trying to understand how she’s feeling.  For example, if your child sounds happy and speaks quickly, do likewise.

The benefits here stack up – body language builds emotional connection over time.