Dear Dr. Debbie,

Is there a right or wrong way to talk with young children? I notice that my child’s Pre-K teacher gets much longer answers out of him than I do. For example, if I ask, “How was your day?” I get, “Good.” If I then ask, “What did you do?” I hear, “Played.”

I Want Answers


Dear IWA,

The short answer is, “Yes,” there is a right way to talk with young children if you wish to engage in lengthy conversation. As a bonus, when you improve communication skills you strengthen your parent-child relationship at the same time.

Time for Conversation

The end of a day at school may not be the best time for a child to give a report about the things that happened that day. He may be exhausted from the day’s experiences and or excited to reconnect with you and to return home. It is very typical for children to give one-word answers to a parent at the end of a school day. They are usually better at answering questions “in the moment” than after the fact anyway. Summary and analysis are complex processes.

A better time to talk might be after a few minutes in the car, when his thoughts and feelings about the day have had a chance to settle, or during a snack or dinner when you’re back home. If you can squeeze in a walk to the playground, or a walk in the park, this is an excellent way to include the habit of checking in with your child’s life as part of the daily schedule. Many parents use a segment of the bedtime routine for recalling highlights of a child’s day and for looking ahead to tomorrow.

Whatever time you choose, be sure you can be free of distractions so your child knows he has your full attention.

Time for Answers

A relaxed setting allows for better conversation. A child, or anyone, for that matter, is more likely to open up when there’s neither rush nor interruptions.

Refrain from filling in with possible answers right after asking your child a question. If you want to draw a him into a conversation, try to ask questions for which you really want to hear his answers. Then give enough time for him to put his answer together. Then think about a good response that shows you heard what was said and that you are interested in hearing more.

For example, instead of asking, “Did you paint a picture today?” when he obviously did (a painting with today’s date on it came home with him), ask, “I’m wondering if there’s a story to go with this painting. Can you tell me about it?” Then respond accordingly with a reaction that reflects your understanding and curiosity. If you put some thought into your questions and comments, your child will be encouraged to do the same. Ask. Pause. Listen. Think. Respond.

Keep the Conversation Going

In a study funded by the National Institute of Health – National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, teachers’ use of language was observed. Most of the preschoolers in these classes used Spanish at home, but were learning English at school. Greater increases in spoken English were observed among students whose teachers used more “responsive” communications, in other words, back and forth conversation, although this was a minority of the teachers. The researchers concluded that talk between an adult and a young child needs to include more than giving directions and asking questions to which the adult already knows the answer.

A summary report of research on language acquisition by the National Library of Medicine suggests that “behaviors that create and sustain engagement in conversational turns are the most powerful predictor of growth in children’s vocabulary from preschool to kindergarten.” The report further states that “by age four, language development is highly predictive of language abilities in adolescence” including reading comprehension at age 16. Overall, the report indicates, communication skills are more effectively gained through back and forth dialogue than by maximizing the number of words to which a child is exposed.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

A good early childhood professional knows to slow down when conversing with young children. They are still beginners at putting the right words together to express their ideas and feelings.

One of the strategies for helping a child to share what he’s thinking and feeling is to ask “open-ended” questions. There are many possible answers to this kind of question, and, once a child gets the idea that the questioner is sincerely interested in hearing his answers, he knows that there is no wrong answer. This makes him more enthusiastic about answering.

Here are some examples:

“What colors do you see in the sunset?” Followed by, “What does it make you think of?”

“Which vegetables do you think we’ll harvest first from our garden?” “Why do you think so?”

“What (or who) do you think you’ll play with tomorrow?” “Tell me more about that.”

“How does it feel to be able to write your name?” “What else has made you feel this way?”

“What animal do you think made that nest?” “What could we do to find out for sure?”

“What do you remember about our camping trip?” “What would you like to bring/do next time?”

Stay on topics of interest to your child and acknowledge his feelings so he knows it’s safe to share them with you. When you open up the dialogue between you, you will learn a lot about what he thinks and how he feels!

Open communication is the basis for a strong relationship.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum

The museum is open daily from 10 am to 4 pm. Online reservations are available or call: 410-990-1993. Each Thursday there is a guided nature walk at 10:30 am. Art and Story Times with Mrs. Spears and Puppy the Puppet are on Monday mornings at 10:30 am.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.