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Most of us have had the frustrating experience of asking our grandchildren questions only to get a one word answer. “What did you learn at school today?” Answer: “Nothing.” Often times that is the end of the conversation, and it leaves us grandparents feeling out of the loop and in the dark about our grandchildren’s lives. We want to know what they love, what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling and whether or not they’re troubled or worried. We want to be part of their lives.

Don’t despair, there is hope. We can teach our grandchildren to engage in conversation and open up to us by asking them open-ended questions. It may take some time and patience, but you’ll be surprised by the results.

Why Open-ended Questions?

Big, open-ended questions that could have a thousand answers support language development as well as critical thinking skills. Instead of asking “Did you have fun today?” which will elicit a yes or no answer, ask, “How was your day? Tell me all about it.” Opening up and actually sharing information may be new to your grandchild. If so, you can model the kind of answer you’re looking for. Tell about three or four events in your day and then ask your grandchild again. Be patient. In time he or she will realize you really want to know and will make the effort to answer with an interesting, accurate account of the day.

When children respond to open-ended questions they gain confidence in their ability to interact with others. They learn to analyze and evaluate what they’ve done and the things they’ve learned and put their ideas into words. They’re encouraged to respond with creativity and reflection. It is a process and takes time, but is so worth the effort.

Asking the Right Question

Interestingly enough, one of the best times to ask a good question is when your grandchild is engaged in a project of some sort. While you may not want to interrupt their thinking, they are more likely to open up and share when they’re creating something. This is especially true if they have chosen to do the project because it’s something they love.

Here are some sentence starters to begin great conversations with your grandkids:

  • Can you describe…?
  • Tell me about…
  • I noticed you … Can you tell me about it?
  • I’m excited to hear about your day. Can you share…?
  • How do you think…?
  • How can I help…?
  • What was the best thing about…?

When you ask open-ended questions be sure to allow enough wait time for your grandchild to respond. It takes careful thought to formulate a genuine answer to a searching question. And, at some level, children understand whether or not you really want to hear their ideas or not. 

Use active listening skills such as making eye contact, restating their words to help them solidify and extend their answers. “I heard you say…” “Did you mean..?” “Are you saying?”

Use follow-up responses such as “Tell me more about…” and “What else…?”

It takes time to build strong, vibrant relationships with our grandchildren. And in today’s world we often have to communicate virtually. All the more reason to make the time spent with them meaningful and authentic. Let your grandkids know you really want to understand what is important to them. You really want the streams of conversation to flow.

The invitation to communicate will benefit your grandkids as well as satisfy your desire to know them well and be part of their lives. They’ll learn to answer thoughtfully by gathering information, coming to conclusions, extending their vocabularies and logical thinking skills. They’ll know their thoughts are appreciated and gain valuable practice in communication skills that will aid their learning all throughout life.