If your kids aren’t already back to school, they’re headed there. Sure that means new classes, homework and all that goes along with the academic aspects of school…but that also means navigating new and old friendships, trying to fit in and wondering if everyone likes you, not just at school, but also on every app with a like button.
This is where you come in. The typical response from caring adults like parents, grandparents, coaches and youth pastors is to ask about school:
How was school today?
How are your classes?
Have any homework?
If you want to see the kids’ perspective on what this parental “checking in” feels like, just watch the first few episodes of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why. The parents weren’t bad, but they weren’t asking the right questions.
So what are the right questions?
It’s not always the questions—it’s the attitude behind the questions. When you ask a kid, “How was your day?” what do they hear? Do they hear…
I’m asking about your day because I feel like I probably should ask you something.
Are you doing what you’re supposed to be doing, because if not, then you’re in trouble.
I want to know about your day if you can summarize it in one sentence.
What do you want them to hear from you?
I really want to know about your day because I really care.
I care more about how you feel than how much homework you have.
I’m here to listen…really.
So how can you communicate this?
In one of my parenting workshops, a dad shared a fascinating story about a relationship-changing conversation he had with his daughter. His daughter came in to the kitchen where he was sitting at the table working—doing bills—and she asked him a question. He admitted that his typical response would be to answer without even looking up from his bills…but for some bizarre reason he didn’t do that this time. Instead, he physically took his arm and swept away all the bills from the table in front of him, gave her his full attention and answered her.
This gesture catalyzed an abnormal response from her—perhaps the sliding away of the bills was a subconscious invite of sorts. Apparently she accepted because she sat down and began talking. And they talked like they had never talked before. He said the conversation was truly game-changing in their relationship.
I tried it, and I’ll be honest, it doesn’t work every time. Sometimes your kids will answer, then about-face and leave you there with your bills.
But guess what?
About 1 in 3 times my kids will accept the subconscious invitation.
Try it. Use the Jedi-mind trick when you sit down with your kids. Make everything in your body communicate, “I’m here for you and I really want to listen to you. I don’t want to just have surface conversation.”
Use cheats if you need to…anything to get them talking and you listening. Just make an effort to communicate your desire to know them and listen.
Today’s teens might not always act like it, but they would really love it if they had someone willing to listen.
Will you be that person?
Jonathan McKee is the president of The Source for Youth Ministry, is the author of over twenty books including the brand new If I Had a Parenting Do Over, 52 Ways to Connect with Your Smartphone Obsessed Kid; Sex Matters; The Amazon Best Seller – The Guy’s Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket; and youth ministry books like Ministry By Teenagers; Connect; and the 10-Minute Talks series. He has over 20 years youth ministry experience and speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for youth workers and parents on his websites, TheSource4YM.com and TheSource4Parents.com. You can follow Jonathan on his blog, getting a regular dose of youth culture and parenting help. Jonathan, his wife, Lori, and their three kids live in California.
This article originally appeared here.