If you grew up watching family sitcoms at any point from the ’60s through the ’90s, then you probably expected that parenting would be filled with grand “teachable moments.”
At the end of every episode — whether it was The Brady Bunch, Growing Pains, Family Ties, or Full House — cheesy music would play, the parent would sit on the edge of the bed with a kid who’d made a hilariously big mistake, they’d have a touching moment in which the parent imparts some life-changing wisdom, and then the scene would end with a hug followed by a joke.
It turns out that real-life parenting isn’t quite like that.
In fact, many of the biggest opportunities for teachable moments with our kids are unexpected or even go by unnoticed. If only someone could cue the cheesy music and clue us in on what to do!
Well, there is something you can do to create an opportunity to connect with your children each and every day.
I call these “The Dinner Questions.” They are a way to avoid asking the question that every child on the planet finds boring: “How was school?” and getting the unhelpful answer of “fine” or “I don’t know.”
What’s special about these questions is that they do more than just entice your kids to talk about their day. They let you in on how your kids think. They help your kids learn to appreciate their experiences and the people in their lives. And they help to shape a positive mindset about the future.
In short, they create built-in “teachable moments.”
Let’s go through the questions to see how.
Question #1: “What was the best part of your day.”
This question seems obvious, but you can learn quite a lot from how your child answers it.
If your child responds with something about a fun interaction with a friend during recess, then you can be reassured that her friendships are going well. But if the best part of your child’s day turns out to be “when school was over” or that “we had a substitute teacher,” then that’s a clear sign that there might be some bigger issues that you need to explore.
When you ask this question enough, you’ll soon find that it’s not always an easy question to answer — and that’s why it’s a great teaching opportunity.
No adult has a great day every day, and kids are no different. But it’s on those hard days that this question presents your child with a useful challenge: to find something good in even the worst of days. With practice, learning to find something positive even when things look darkest can help your child build resilience and find satisfaction in his life, no matter what challenges he may face.
Question #2: “What was the worst part of your day.”
I am a huge proponent of raising independent kids, but I’ve got to say that one of the strangest feelings as a parent of school-aged kids is the realization that they spend most of their wakeful hours away from you. This is topped only by the understanding that by late elementary school — and certainly in middle and high school — so many of their thoughts and feelings are shaped by their friends and teachers, not you.
So as a parent, we’d like to get filled in on whether our kids might be dealing with some problems and how they’re handling them.
But how to ask? “How are things with your friends?” or “How is school?” are wishy-washy questions bound only to get generic answers, like “good” or “okay.”
That’s why this question is better: “What was the worst part of your day?” You’re coming right out and asking about what challenges your child is facing, and the best part is that you’ve created a safe place for her to answer by casually asking during the 5 Dinner Questions. By making this question part of the routine, you’re stripping away the awkwardness of probing only for your child’s problems.
This question also provides a teaching moment for us parents. Your child might answer with something big and you might want to offer some quick advice. Or, perhaps the worst part of your child’s day is something that seems really insignificant to you — “I left my Pokemon cards at home.”
But dismissing your child’s problem as “no big deal” might discourage him from sharing his problems with you in the future. And swooping in with unsolicited solutions prevents your child from learning how to solve her own problems in the future.
Instead, I turn to a technique I learned from Molly Barker, founder of Girls on the Run. When her kids tell her about something that’s important to them in some way, she often responds with one of these three phrases: “Wow,” “Bummer,” or “I’m here for you.” The first two show that you’ve heard your child and that you’ve registered that it’s important to him, but also leave room for him to talk about it more — whether it’s to elaborate on his thoughts, or to ask you for advice. The third response, “I’m here for you,” shows exactly that — which is probably the most important insight you can offer a child facing a challenge.
Question #3: How did you help someone today?
At first, this question might not seem to fit in with the rest. However, it just might be the most important one of all.
On the surface, the point of this question appears pretty simple: to teach your child to be kind to others. But in addition to that very valid purpose, answering this question also helps your child develop a very powerful skill.
You see, recognizing and addressing the emotions of others is a vital component of Emotional Intelligence. And we know that people with a high emotional intelligence tend to be more self-aware, happier, and often more effective leaders than those who don’t have as much of the skill.
Helping others also encourages your child to become a problem solver. I was once told that instead of asking kids what they want to be when they grow up, ask instead: “What problems do you want to solve?” It sounds silly, but think for a moment about the people who have had the most impact on society or business. Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bill Gates, and more — these movers & shakers are problem solvers at heart whose ultimate goals were essentially to help people.
By asking this question each night as part of your 5 Dinner Questions routine, you teach your child that helping others is important — so important, in fact, that it should be a daily occurrence.
The answers to this question don’t have to be earth-shattering. “I helped my friend zip up his coat” or “I lent my friend 50¢ at lunch” are perfectly acceptable. Getting your child to recognize that she can and should help others in life — no matter how big or small the act may be — puts her on the path to becoming a creative thinker, respected leader, and good friend.
Question #4: What are you grateful for?
Gratitude. It’s become a bit of a buzzword, hasn’t it?
Dozens of articles mentioning gratitude filter through your newsfeed each day, but it’s for good reason. Studies have shown that routinely feeling grateful benefits everything from health, sleep, and relationships, to self-esteem and developing a positive attitude.
Parents often joke that kids don’t know just how good they have it. Well, here’s your chance to help your child recognize how good his life really is.
More importantly, teaching your child now — while he’s young — to appreciate everything from the food on the table to the love that he feels from friends and family gives him a better chance at growing up to become an adult who is appreciative of all the good in his life. Don’t we all share the hope that our kids will grow up into satisfied adults?
This gratitude question is also your chance to teach by example. How you answer the question can show your children that there can be so many things to be grateful for, both big and small. What’s more, occasionally using your response to say that you’re grateful for your children or something that they’ve done can be positive in several ways — not only by reminding them that you love them, but also by showing how much you appreciate their good behavior and any other helpful things that they do.
Ultimately, though, asking your children about what they’re grateful for helps you by giving you insight into what makes them tick, and benefits them by encouraging them to appreciate the good in their lives.
Question #5: How will you make tomorrow a great day?
One of my favorite lines in the movie Jerry Maguire is when “the late, great” Dicky Fox exclaims: “I love the mornings! I clap my hands every morning and say, ‘This is gonna be a great day!’”
The reason that moment in the film has always stuck with me is that as you watch the late, great Dicky Fox enthusiastically deliver the line, you know that he’s going to make his day great. The late, great Dicky Fox, bless his soul, is clearly a champion of the growth mindset.
It was a decade ago that psychologist Carol Dweck released her seminal book on “growth mindset.” In it, we learn that having a “fixed mindset” — one in which we believe that our intellect and skills have a limit that cannot be changed — tends to produce less success in life than having a “growth mindset” — the belief that our intelligence and abilities can develop and be improved upon with the right effort and learning.
This question — “How will you make tomorrow a great day?” — is one way that you can help nurture a growth mindset in your child.
By incorporating this question into your 5 Dinner Questions routine, you are telling your child that she gets to decide how tomorrow will be. Your child, no matter how old or young she might be, gets a say in how she faces the world.
Once again, the answers here don’t have to be overly complicated. But by asking your child this final question, you are encouraging her to positively think about her own potential — to assess what she wants, then calculate and plan exactly what steps she needs to take to get there.
By asking your child this question each night, you’re giving her the chance to wake up knowing: “This is gonna be a great day!”
It’s amazing that you can accomplish so much with just a handful of simple questions at dinner!
Ask your children these 5 Dinner Questions a few nights each week and you’ll be amazed at how much both you and your children will learn — and you’ll find that those teaching moments you seek aren’t so hard to come by!
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a pediatrician, dad, host of The Child Repair Guide Podcast, and claps his hands in the morning and exclaims: “This is going to be a great day!” You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, and learn how he helps parents raise happy, healthy, confident kids at www.drstevesilvestro.com.
Originally published at www.drstevesilvestro.com on January 3, 2017.
Originally published at medium.com