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When Asking Questions Gets You Nowhere

August 1, 2015/by Betty Gewirtz

This is the second post in our “Because Kids Don’t Come With Instructions” series edited by Ellen Taner. The series is in support of FamilyKind’s Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP) program beginning in the fall of 2015.

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Question: Sometimes I feel so frustrated talking to my 9-year-old son. It doesn’t matter if I’m talking to him during the school year or when he’s in summer camp. He answers my questions the same way; “yes,” “no,” or “I don’t know.” For example, when I ask him, “what did you do at camp today?,” his response is: “I don’t know, just stuff.” If I ask, “Did you enjoy camp today?” he responds “yes” or “I guess.” During the school year I have said: “Don’t you think you should finish your homework before you play video games?” My son either ignores me or says, “I don’t know.” I really want to have a discussion with him but instead, I feel shut out. What am I doing wrong?

Response: You sound frustrated. Your intentions to be connected and communicative with your son backfires and he puts up his guard. Unintentionally, you are asking closed questions. For example, “did you enjoy camp today?” is going to get a yes or no answer. He might not realize that you are open to having a conversation about camp.

On the other hand, you will find that open questions are more successful in getting longer and more detailed responses. You can then respond by showing that you understood him and ask another question to keep the conversation going. Open questions start with one of the 5 w’s – what, where, when, which and who and at times, how.“What did you do today that you especially liked?” “How did you feel when you tried out for swimming in the deep end of the pool?” Open questions convey that you think your child’s thoughts and feelings are important and worthwhile. So the next time, you want your child to share his or her experience more openly, consider asking an open question. And keep in mind, some children will tell you more often about their feelings and some will give you facts. Either is all right and you might be pleasantly surprised at what you learn.

Betty Gewirtz is a licensed clinical social worker and psychoanalyst in private practice in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and a parent educator in FamilyKind’s STEP program. Learn more

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