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How to Use Open-Ended Questions to Get Kids Talking

Lela Davidson is a mother and writer who is passionate about healthcare and education for women and children.

Photo: benkun2000, Flikr

Photo: benkun2000, Flikr

If you want to have interesting conversations with your kids, ask open-ended questions. If you start this practice at the dinner table when they're little, you'll be ready to face the challenges later when one word answers will be their communication of choice.

Closed questions require a one or two-word response or even as little as a nod of the head. They can also be the type that are elicit right or wrong answers, making kids feel as if they're being quizzed.

Examples of closed questions:

  • What's your favorite color?
  • Is that your toy?
  • Are you hungry?

Open-ended invite kids to imagine, elaborate, and tell stories. You'll get more information and get to know your child better when you ask open-ended questions. They let children think and solve problems. Here are some examples:

  • What do you think will happen now?
  • If you were the cook, what would you fix us for dinner?
  • If you were the mayor of our city, what would you do first?

Open-ended questions allow children to express whatever they're thinking. They don't demand a response, but leave space for the child to answer thoughtfully. The encourage creative thinking, problem solving and imagination. Plus, when you take the time to listen to a longer answer, you are sending a strong non-verbal message that you value your child and his thoughts and ideas.

Applications for Open-Ended Questions

Asking open- ended questions is a habit you can cultivate with a few tricks. You can either print up a list of questions to use as a cheater not, or just experiment. Here are some common ways to start an open-ended question:

  • What would happen if...
  • I wonder...
  • What do you think about...
  • In what way...
  • Tell me about...
  • What would you do...
  • How can we...
  • How did you...

Not only will this technique help you forge a great relationship with your kids, but it's also teaching them how to communicate effectively with others. By acing the art of the open-ended question you bond and teach at the same time.

Bonus: Open-ended questions encourage children to recall what they've done and practice talking about it. This helps their language development and may even get them ready for those SAT essays.

Getting Accurate Information

Engaging in meaningful conversation with our children is a wonderful reason to become adept at asking open-ended questions, but that's not the only benefit. Sometimes as parents we assume something's going on that may not be. We need to be careful not to project our assumptions onto the situation with closed questions.

Early childhood development expert Maren Schmidt states in her Kids Talk newsletter:

"We need to choose our words carefully and frame our questions even more so. Inadvertently we can plant ideas with our questions, and redirect or distort our children's attention and perception.

For example, consider these questions: ''How are you feeling? Are you sick? Do you have a stomachache?'' Which question is going to get correct feedback?"

Sometimes the situation seems cut and dried. I know I feel like sometimes I just need that yes or no answer. But when I really look at it, sometimes I'm looking to pin something on my kids. Look what happens when we use Maren's method of transforming closed questions to open-ended ones:

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Closed: Did you hit your brother?

Open: Why is your brother crying? Tell me what happened.

Closed: Did you make this mess?

Open: What can you tell me about this spilled paint?

Closed: Did you take a bath?

Open: When were you planning on taking a bath?

This skill is crucial to all of us. Do your kids a favor and model it for them while they're young.


Sheilamarie from British Columbia on May 04, 2015:

Simply choosing your words carefully can make a big difference in keeping communication open.

suraj punjabi from jakarta on March 23, 2014:

I am definitely going to keep this in mind and practice it with my 1st child that will be coming to our lives in a few months time. Thank you for this great hub :)

astutiana on September 11, 2011:

Inspiring me for writing book about English for children

Thanks a lot


james on August 28, 2011:

great info

Bobri Dobri from Oklahoma on May 11, 2011:

Very useful and very easy. And not only when talking with kids, but also when talking with husband, our own parents, everybody! Thanks for great hub! I should keep it in mind every day, especially when I feel tired or angry.. :)

Mrs. Sunshine on March 10, 2011:

This was VERY HELPFUL, I'm in a program at school in which is like Pre-K and I found these questions too very useful, you really grasp the childrens attention and open their mind.

demaan on February 14, 2011:

great tip

Fangirl on January 06, 2011:

Just one small issue: "When were you planning on taking a bath?" is not an open ended question. There is an assumption here that the child is going to take a bath. This question is in fact manipulative--the person asking is being a tad dishonest because there is no thinking required to answer it. How would the parent respond if the child said, "When I feel like it"?

Tiffany on January 05, 2011:

Thanks it really works. I tried it with my child an it worked

iamageniuster on December 18, 2010:

Thank you. I use this when I am at work too.

Vanmil on October 10, 2010:

Fantastic hub! Very important topic covered here.

Val on May 08, 2010:

Great tips!

I believe communicating using open ended questions is useful across all age groups. It helps to build one's professional verbal skills, particularly in the provider/patient relationship.

Ms Sara on March 26, 2010:

Thanks for the tips this has helped me with an assessment for TAFE

Mrs. May on March 16, 2010:

I now have the tools to talk to my child. I feel confident I will open the door to a shy child of mine. This website is wonderful!! Thanks.

prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on May 26, 2009:

As s teacher your hub is very informative, give the solutions to talk with the kid.thanks

Blogger Mom from Northeast, US on March 30, 2008:

Great tips - thanks!

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