And was that fun?
September 16, 2017 8:40 PM   Subscribe

My five year old niece likes to talk to me on the phone, and is finally starting to actually participate in conversations instead of just going silent if she doesn't have an immediate answer to a question. But now that I can ask her questions and get real answers, what should I ask her? And how?

A lot of our conversations are of the "What did you do at school this today?" sort and she's not good at telling anecdotes from her day, so I usually get short answers. That's an improvement over evasive changing of the subject to something else she doesn't really want to talk about, either, but it is still hard to hold a conversation with her.

How do I approach a conversation with a five-year-old in a way that gives her the confidence and opening to tell me stuff in more depth instead of me asking her a question, getting a minimal answer, and asking her another question? I run out of questions pretty fast that way.
posted by jacquilynne to Human Relations (17 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
My experience with five year olds is that you probably can't. They just aren't that great at conversation in formal setttings like phone calls yet.

If you can Skype instead of phone, you can actually do things with her that mean conversation becomes less of a big deal and more something that happens naturally. For example, you can get her to give you a tour of her room, or show you her favourite toys. You can even play a board game together with her moving your piece according to your instructions. You can read her a story and then you can talk about it. Those are all things that have worked with kids I know.
posted by lollusc at 8:47 PM on September 16, 2017 [10 favorites]

How about asking her opinion on things? Who is the funniest person she knows? What kind of funny things do they say or do? What was the best birthday party she went to? Why? Would she rather be Elsa or Anna (from Frozen)? And instead of making it seem like an interrogation, why not tell her about your life? Like, how you were thinking of making some cookies, and you ate these really good cookies at your friend's party, and then ask her about her friend's birthday parties.

Also, you might try Skyping/Facetiming with her instead of talking on the phone, so she has more of a sense of the lively you and less of your disembodied voice.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 8:48 PM on September 16, 2017 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Just to clarify, we do actually talk on Facetime rather than the phone. She mostly is very, very bad at actually pointing the camera at things, though, so I spend a lot of time talking to the ceiling.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:56 PM on September 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

We play 'The Conversation Game' at dinner to help teach our kids how to listen and take turns talking. Everyone starts by giving their day a number out of ten (my day was a 9 out of 10, folks, it was a great day). Then we ask them to tell us something that made their day an x. Then we pause for follow up questions, which contestants earn points for asking. Popular follow up questions from children include: What was the most fun thing you did today? And What was the least fun thing you did today? Adult follow up questions often involve recess activities, lunch seating arrangements, and school snack adventures. This is usually enough conversation fodder for everyone to feel like they were productive but not so much that the kids get overloaded.
posted by bq at 8:58 PM on September 16, 2017 [16 favorites]

I've always found it easiest to not ask questions. Kids get asked an awful lot of questions and I can imagine they get tired. Try telling her something, something inconsequential and tangential, like that blue bird that hopped at the window, that sort of thing, and take it from there.
posted by dhruva at 9:09 PM on September 16, 2017 [9 favorites]

My mother was able to have 20 minute conversations with my kids when my father about 2 minutes and my wife and I about 30 seconds. Her answer for why was "listen and repeat". So my kid would say they played with a friend today. She would say, "What was your friend's name?" Then, "Oh what a pretty name. I had a friend with that name when I was your age. Do you like the name?" She would just keep on going with the flow. She would also get briefed by us about what was going on in our kid's lives that week. She knew if they had a big soccer game or a test or... What she did not say, but what I gleened, was that my mother had the patience of a saint.
posted by AugustWest at 9:12 PM on September 16, 2017 [23 favorites]

With kids that age, open ended questions are hard. Questions that force more specific answers are better (bq gives some great examples).

If you're doing FaceTime, maybe ask her to show you things? Show her room, show where she brushes her teeth, show her place at the dinner table.
posted by padraigin at 9:13 PM on September 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you can set up the iPad so that it doesn't have to be manoeuvred that will probably help. Kids are easily distracted by tasks like that. We use mirroring to put ours on the tv at both ends which helps with the receiving at least.

Perhaps do something together? Cooking or something? Depends how elaborate you want to get, but I agree that conversation is basically a skill that little kids have to learn over time and ime they tend to be best at it with no pressure (I.e spontaneously) so few questions and more incidental conversation is best.
posted by jojobobo at 9:14 PM on September 16, 2017

I would try to make a game out of it - collaborative, not competitive. Maybe a simple story-telling game?

You - "I saw an orange and white cat in my garden. What do you think its name is?"

Her - "xxxx"*

Y - "Oh, so it was a boy? What do you think it likes to do?"

H - "Uhm..."**

Y - "Do you know a real boy with the name of xxxx?"

Hopefully, you can fine-tune it to keep her engaged, and she'll start doing more of the driving.

*pronounced Bartholomeow Tigerfangg IX
**"Whittle chicory and bid on cribbage beneath the cabbage foliage, my dear auntie."
posted by Anoplura at 10:08 PM on September 16, 2017 [6 favorites]

My favorite conversation-continuation with small children, even if I didn't understand a gosh darned thing they said or it made no sense, is "Oh wow, and then what happened?" Kids are super happy to talk, but maybe not willing or able to answer specific questions.

Like, with my 4 year old:
Me: Did you have fun at school today?
Him: No! Wait, yes! I DID have fun. I had a blue crayon.
Me: Oh, and then what happened?
Him: I had a crayon and Sofia had a crayon and James had a crayon!
Me: Oh, and THEN what happened?
Him: Then we had pictures and then dinosaurs came and RAWR *crash stomp* and we were in the sand and there were trucks.
Me: Oh! And then what happened?
Him: I ate an apple. Do we have any apples right now? Oh I have a lunchbox. I had lunch! Sofia had a lunch too.
Me: Oh, and then what happened?

You get the idea.
posted by erst at 10:16 PM on September 16, 2017 [18 favorites]

Tell her stories about your day. Funny things that happened to you, a cat you saw tthat did something cute, then segue into do you like cats or does your cat ever do that sort of thing. A constant stream of questionss is tiring for everyone. If she gives you an answer to a question, build on it, oh you did x at school, when I went to school we did x and cute short anecdote about you doing x.

Don't ask questions with too abstract an answer. Not what did you do in school today, but did you do x in school today, do you like x, what is your teachers name, do you have a class pet, what its his name, do you like him. Aren't hamsters cute, does he ruin on his wheel during class. Small questions about small things with easy not so abstract answers. Then don't go straight into another question, share info about you that relates. Kids love stories even one you might think are boring, make things that happen to you that relates to the questions you asked, into a short two sentence story and then share with her.
posted by wwax at 6:33 AM on September 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

My experience with five year olds is that if you speak to them like you'd speak to anybody else they have much more depth than you'd think. But you gotta lead. Try stuff like "What happened this week that made the least sense to you?" You'll be astounded cause that's what they are all about. Become an ally in making sense of their world. Share anecdotes about you being five and trying to make sense of the world. That is where you are really going to get them connected to you and you to them.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 6:57 AM on September 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Don't ask questions with too abstract an answer. Not what did you do in school today, but did you do x in school today, do you like x, what is your teachers name, do you have a class pet, what its his name, do you like him.

Yes! I realised a friend of mine was gently coaching me on this regarding their kids (which I really appreciated), asking the kid to tell me who their favourite teacher is and why their teacher is nice, etc. I felt like these were things I would have hated as a kid, but their daughter really opened up and it gave lots of opportunities for "and what happened then" or "oh wow, was that fun?" expansion. If your niece doesn't like school but you know she cooks with her dad or builds stuff with her mum or has grandparents nearby, you can do the same with specific questions there.
posted by carbide at 7:39 AM on September 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

One thing I try to do with my 5 year old is ask if he has any questions for me. He often does, anything ranging from can we watch a movie to what happens when something dies or what's Iron Mans super power. Gives me a wonderful insight into his world.
posted by HMSSM at 11:45 AM on September 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

One note: my kid always hated superlatives in questions. Instead of "what's the funniest thing that happened today" I'd have to ask "what's something funny that happened today?" Because he would run through everything and try to compare funniness and worry he was missing something and then refuse to answer.

If she has a passion, though, that is often a good place to start. My son is into Pokemon, and the question "what's your second favorite fire type Pokemon" can easily lead to a monologue an hour long. It's boring (and a superlative! why don't the rules apply there? IDK), but he loves it.
posted by gideonfrog at 1:53 PM on September 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

"Tell me something good that happened today."
"Who did you play with today?" - "What games did you play?"
"Did you learn any new songs today?"
"Did you make art today? "
Add in the names of who they played with... " Did Stephanie make art too?" "Did George sing the song with you? " "Oh, Ninjago is your favorite toy. Does Sophie like Ninjago too?"... kids that age love to talk about their friends, and to compare and contrast their thoughts and feelings. We use this as a jumping off point for discussing social/emotional learning. We often talk about the topic of making good decisions, and of what could have been done differently.
posted by vignettist at 4:27 PM on September 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Can you mail her some books and then read them out loud to her over facetime? A fun thing would be like an I Spy or Where's Waldo where you can spend time hunting for specific pictures together over the phone.
posted by latkes at 1:55 PM on September 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

« Older Find me an exercise I actually want to do!   |   How can I donate for victims of the Asian flood? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.