The same question with parenting comes up repeatedly: “I don’t know how to talk to my kids so they’ll listen, and how do I listen better so they’ll talk to me?” The struggle to perfect communication usually indicates parents are probably asking too many questions, expecting their children to provide the answers they want. While typically children don’t like questions, they’re more inclined to share information when they feel seen, heard, understood, and supported. When parents use connective communication, making statements rather than asking questions, children can more readily share.

One parent has insisted that asking questions is the only way to get children to provide the necessary information. Here’s an example of her frustration with how this is not working:

“When my son gets home from school, I want to know about his day so I ask him to tell me what it was like. He just says, ‘Fine.’ I don’t understand what the problem is in asking what he did in school, but he just says, ‘Nothing.’ Are you kidding me!!? He should be willing to answer my questions. I don’t have a clue how to get him to talk to me. The more I ask, the less he says. I have no idea what’s going on in school or with his friends! I’m very frustrated and annoyed.”

Understandably, this mom’s futile attempts to hear about her son’s school day creates considerable irritation. The problem is her son isn’t feeling any connection and doesn’t like being questioned. The “more she asks, the less he says,” underscores that. The #5 “do-over” below addresses this dynamic.

Taking a closer look, here are some practical examples, indicating the struggle of many parents trying to connect with their children. These speak to the frustration of asking questions without getting satisfactory answers. With the best of intentions, parents often “harass” their children when attempting to engage them in talking. I recommend parents avoid asking “why” questions. None of us likes to be asked why we did something or why we made a particular choice, or an error in judgment. Children often feel trapped, which can encourage them to lie. They struggle to give the answer they believe their parents want, or need, while also feeling blamed, even shamed, by the implication they might be bad.

1. “Why didn’t you clean your room?”

2. “Why did you eat all the cookies?”

3. “Why didn’t you invite Chloe to your party?”

4. “Why are you lying to me?”

5. “Why aren’t you answering me?”

Would any of these questions feel comfortable to us? Are they creating an atmosphere of acceptance, understanding, connection? Not likely; however, that’s what parents expect and what children want most. We have a responsibility to connect, and to own whatever is our problem. Here are “do-overs” to the above “why” questions:

1. First, recognize that having a clean room is your problem, not your child’s. Chances are your child cares less about his messy room than going outside to be with his friends; thus, what’s needed to gain cooperation is to request his help. Asking a child “Why didn’t you … ?” is blaming him, which only brings more resistance. If the goal is for him to trust his parent, it’s helpful to focus on other things for a while. Then try saying something like, “I get that you’re OK with the way your room is. I also understand the messy condition is my problem. The reason it’s a problem for me is because food crumbs and dirt could invite bugs and possibly mice into your room, and then into the rest of the house. I can ignore the clutter with your school stuff and clothes; however, I’m concerned about the lack of cleanliness. Any ideas how we can make this work? Would you be willing to make an agreement with me to clean your room every three weeks?” The important goal is having his cooperation by admitting this is your problem. Once he doesn’t feel blamed, he’s better able to listen and cooperate more freely.

2. “I see the cookies are all gone. I appreciate you must have been hungry when you got home from school. I was planning to bring some to my staff meeting tomorrow. It’s a problem for me that now I no longer have that option. Are you willing to help me bake some more?” Again, no blame. The parent acknowledged it is her problem and asks for her child’s cooperation.

3. “I know Chloe has been your friend for a long time. Who you invite to your party is certainly your choice. Since you’ve decided not to invite her, I’m wondering what’s changed between you. If you’d like to talk about it, I’m here to listen.” No questions, no expectations, unconditional acceptance, respecting boundaries, with a willingness to connect.

4. The assumption is your child is not being truthful, that she’s done something wrong. Accusing her of that with “Why are you lying?” will put her on the defensive, shaming her, rather than reaching understanding and connection. Different approach: “I’m concerned I’m not getting the whole story. I’d like to listen and to understand what happened. Whatever it is, it will feel much better to talk openly with each other, and then we can do any necessary problem solving together.”

5. “I appreciate you like some down time when you get home and you don’t want to be asked how school was. I’d love to hear about your day if you’d like to share anything later. I’m here to just listen.” The same principle.

When children feel unconditionally accepted, without judgment or blame, it’s far more likely they will talk to us. Listening from the heart, being fully present (5/25/21 column), without lecturing, criticizing, asking “why” questions, interrupting, or telling them what they should have done or said, creates a safe environment in which connection can grow.

“Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse? Think of the last time you felt humiliated or treated unfairly. Did you feel like cooperating or doing better?” — Jane Nelson