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How to Avoid One Word Answers

Posted on: July 18th, 2014 by Anne Fishel, Ph.D

“How can I ask about school went without my kid shutting down and giving me one-word answers?”

Dr. Anne K. Fishel offers some helpful tips.


I don’t know about you, but when I come home from a long day at work, I like to change my clothes, grab a handful of almonds (or cookies if it’s been a particularly challenging day), and curl up with the newspaper. I’d rather not answer a whole lot of questions until I’ve had a chance to decompress. I think many children may feel something similar after a long day at school.

And there may be other reasons why kids are monosyllabic. It could be that they’ve been answering questions all day and now want a break, or that they’re so hungry and tired that one word is all they can muster. Perhaps they’ve got a lot on their mind, and the question you asked isn’t interesting to them. Or maybe they just don’t feel like talking, but want your quiet company.

Of course, it’s impossible to know if your child won’t tell you, which is the Catch-22. Here are a few tips that have worked for me over the years with my children, and with child patients who are sometimes reluctant to volunteer information. I can’t guarantee that they will always work, or work for every child. Only you know your child well enough to predict which, if any, of these approaches may help you and your child have more after school conversation.

  • A hungry child is often a silent child. If he’s running on empty, it’s hard to summon the energy to tell stories about school. It may be best to hold all questions until he’s sitting down with a snack.
  • As your day rolls along, try collecting small stories that may interest or amuse your children, like something mischievous the dog did during the day, a funny exchange with a neighbor, or your worry about almost running out of gas. Then, when you reunite with your child, start with a story of your own. This kind of modeling often helps get the ball rolling, and means that you are offering something before asking for something.
  • Keep a  “map” in your head of what you know about your child’s day-to-day world, and ask questions that show you’ve been paying attention. After all, there’s nothing more maddening than answering the same question every day. Instead, ask a question that starts by showing that the details of your child’s life matter enough for you to have remembered them. For example, “I know that today was your first music class, what was it like?” Or, “ Did you have a chance to play tag again at recess, like you did yesterday? Whom did you play with today?”
  • Or, take a break from asking questions, and instead wonder out loud about parts of your child’s day without asking anything. “At noon today I was thinking about you because I knew you were taking your first test, and I was hoping that all the studying you did last night made you feel confident.” Then, just be quiet, and see if your child adds on to what you’ve started.
  • Ask some questions that only require one-word answers, but not necessarily just yes or no. For example, “What did you like better today, math or reading?” “Who was most fun to play with today? And then who?” Sometimes, kids realize that they are offering information anyway, and decide to fill in more of the details.
  • There is a saying I was taught in graduate school about how to make certain behaviors, like one-word answers, less attractive to patients. The saying is “Spit in the soup,” which means predict that someone is going to do the very thing that you wish they wouldn’t. The idea is that by suggesting the behavior, you may deflate some of its power. So, you might say, “Sally, I want to ask you about your day, and I know that you’re only going to want to give me one word answers, and that’s all I really expect right now.”
  • And then there is the more direct approach. You can always ask your child to help you be better at having a conversation about their day. “I am so excited to see you, and so interested in what you’ve been doing, what you’re learning, who you’ve played with, but you often don’t seem to want to talk. Is there anything that makes it easier or harder for you to share some of your day with me?”

If your child answers, “Yes, don’t ask me so many questions!”  you can wonder aloud what she might not like about your questions. If you figure it out, you may be on your way to changing the conversation.

Image via.


by Dr. Anne K. Fishel

Anne FishelAnne Fishel is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School and the Director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. She has lectured and written about the benefits of family meals.

Her book about family dinners, Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun and Conversation for Happier Families and Healthier Kids, is available through Amazon.