Learn the importance of open ended questions for children to spark conversation and discover what to say (and not say) to encourage interaction.
At the dentist’s office, my six-year-old pulled out the map he’d been drawing. He sat sketching the rest of it when a woman waiting noticed his map.
“Wow, is that a map?” she asked. Before he could answer, she continued, “Is it a treasure map?”
He and I both knew he wasn’t drawing a treasure map. But, as it sometimes happens when caught off guard, he responded, “Yes.”
She pressed on. “Where’s the treasure? Don’t forget to put an ‘X’ on the spot. And is that the ocean?”
My son clammed up.
You see, the map wasn’t a treasure map at all. Instead, the map depicted the Los Angeles freeways and streets we often drive on. He has a fascination with which freeways lead to where and which exits to take. He can tell you the exact directions to his grandma’s house. And he draws pages and pages then hangs them as posters.
Except the woman won’t know any of this. And that’s the downside with not asking open ended questions. We project our own interpretation before a child has a chance to share his.
Open ended questions for children to spark conversation
Open ended questions…
- Invite more than a one-word or one-phrase answer, especially “yes” or “no.”
- Don’t assume and instead encourage discussion.
- Give control of the conversation to the person answering.
- Encourage the person answering to think more deeply and thoughtfully.
The scene at the dentist’s office made me realize how much we project our assumptions. For instance, I’ve said many times to my kids, “Did you have a good day?” instead of asking, “What did you do today?” Already saying “good” closes the conversation to a “yes” or “no” response.
It also implies I’m more interested and prefer that he had a good day than a bad one. I don’t want them to feel like I’ll be happy if they respond they had a good day and upset if they didn’t.
Leaving the question open to “How was your day?” or “What did you do today?” keeps the conversation open for more honest discussion.
Open ended questions also let your child explain without us butting in too much. Imagine if the woman at the dentist’s office had stopped at “Is that a map?” Or better, asked, “What is that?”
I do my kids a disservice when I already assume I know what they drew or made. When I ask something specific—no matter how obvious to me—they get taken aback.
Today my three-year-old gave me pretend food he was “cooking.” The toy itself looked like a pile of beans. So when I said, “Ooh… beans!” he looked confused and corrected me, saying, “Pizza!”
Apparently he was cooking pizza, and since we don’t have a toy pizza, he used the next best thing he could find.
No doubt, close ended questions are important as well. We need facts and quick answers. We want to know whether our kids already brushed their teeth or what book they want to read. Close ended questions aren’t the evil of the world.
But don’t rely only on close ended questions, especially when encouraging conversation. When in doubt, say, “Tell me about that.” The woman at the dentist’s office would’ve learned the “treasure map” was actually Los Angeles.
Get more tips about communicating with your child:
- What to Do if Your Child Is Talking in Class a Lot
- 5 Tips to Increase Self Confidence in Kids
- How to Properly Use Praise to Encourage Your Child’s Potential
- The Simple Truth about Your Child’s Annoying Questions
- How to Be a Good Listener
Tell me in the comments: What are some examples of open ended questions for children you’ve asked your child?