Seven conversation starters that strike fear in the heart of parents everywhere

Kids say the darndest things.
Kids say the darndest things.
Image: Reuters/Brendan McDermid
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Getting our kids to talk to us is one of the ongoing struggles of parenthood. After trial  and error, and a lot of awkward dinner table conversations, the smartest of us have learned a few important dos and don’ts. Don’t start a conversation with “How was your day?” for example, or similarly, “What did you do at school?”

Ideally, the best conversations are actually started by our kids themselves. By the same token, however, sometimes the worst ones come from them, too.

In our family, the best and most meaningful talks typically happen at bedtime, when everyone is relaxed and undistracted. Plus, my kids know that the best way to sneak in a few more minutes before lights out is to keep talking. But as much as we want our kids to open up to us, these are the seven of the conversation starters I dread.

1. Promise you won’t be mad at me?

There simply isn’t a right answer to this question. If you say yes, it’s like giving your kid a free pass to get away with something that probably warrants a consequence. Say no and you risk not hearing about an incident that you likely should know about. Recently, during our snuggle time, my 11-year-old son Noah began a conversation by asking this very question.

“What do you want to tell me?” I asked.

“When I was like seven or eight I found a ring at grandma’s house that looked really cool so I took it.”

“What did the ring look like?”

It was shiny and it had white stones.”

My stomach churned and my heart sank—my parents had just filed a police report after several pieces of jewelry, including my grandmother’s sentimentally priceless diamond wedding ring, were discovered missing.

“What did you do with it?”

“I felt bad for taking it, so I flushed it down the toilet.”

Turns out the ring Noah flushed was not an irreplaceable family heirloom but a piece of costume jewelry. Still, I have yet to recover from the emotional trauma of this conversation

2. Are you going to tell Dad?

Spouses shouldn’t keep secrets from each other (unless the husband is planning a romantic weekend getaway for his amazing, hard-working, loving wife). If my daughter tells me she has a crush on a classmate and asks me not to tell my husband, that doesn’t count. But, if the secret has to do with getting in trouble or making poor choices, then all bets are off. Dad is going to find out.

The challenge is that I want my kids to feel like they can always talk to me or my husband, but they also need to know that in serious situations, both parents have to know. In the case of the flushed ring, when my son asked if was going to tell grandma, I said no; he was going to have to let her know. (I did give her a heads-up phone call so she knew before the story started that it wasn’t going to be as bad as it sounded.)


I need help with my math homework

My last math class was in high school, and I really don’t know how I passed. Somehow, I managed to skate through college without a single math class. Math homework is doable until the fifth grade. After that I have to defer to the closest adult around. Last year we asked the UPS driver if he remembered how to simplify fractions. He did, but he had to finish his route and couldn’t stay to discuss numerators and denominators.

4. You like him better

Really, I don’t like anyone one of my children better. But they never believe me, so I’ve stopped trying to make my case by saying things like, “I love you all the same” or “I don’t have a favorite.” Sometimes I tell them that my favorite is the kid who is behaving the best at the time.

5. That’s not fair

In all fairness, I don’t hate this one as much as I used to, since I found the perfect response. “You don’t want things to be fair,” I tell them. My oldest doesn’t want to share a bedtime with his siblings, and the other two don’t want to share the same restricted diet as their brother with multiple food allergies.

6. Can we get a dog?

For the billionth time, no, we cannot get a dog. I know that, despite your promises to take care of a dog, to walk it, clean up after it, and all that other BS, the novelty of your new pet will wear off quickly—and yours truly will then have a fourth child to take care of. So please, stop asking, because I am afraid that one day I will cave and we will end up with a puppy.

7. I’m bored


What can I do?

I’ve also learned how to best respond to this one so I don’t hear it as much. I am always happy to offer a list of choirs, projects, or non-electronic options. Nobody ever likes my suggestions. Slowly, my kids are learning to stop complaining about boredom.