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Get Your Kid to Open Up

Tina Rupp

"I think my child's lying—or at least avoiding the truth—about the kinds of things he's doing. How can I get him to talk about it?"

First, let's get this out of the way: Just because your child might be lying right now doesn't mean he lacks moral character or is on a criminal path. "Who has never lied? Who doesn't embellish or rearrange the truth at one time or another?" asks Faber. "And kids often lie because they wish what they're telling you really could be the truth. Or they're afraid of how you'll react." Your child isn't going to fess up if he knows he'll get into big trouble or that you might lose your temper and turn into the Incredible Hulk.

Say you suspect that your son is playing games online instead of doing homework when he's over at a friend's house. Before you start talking about something this sticky, pick the right time and place. For instance, don't jump on him, all worried and upset, right after school or at bedtime. He needs those times to unwind. Instead, consider striking up a more measured conversation while you're cleaning up after dinner or on a Saturday morning.

Let your child know straight-out why you're suspicious instead of asking trick questions, stresses Zelinger. For instance: "I'm worried that you're doing other things, like going on the Internet or playing online games, when you're supposed to be studying with Jack." When you start getting real answers, take many deep breaths. This is a time when you should be asking questions and listening rather than talking or lecturing: "Do you think being on those websites is the best way to use your homework time? How could you get back on track while you and Jack work together?" And so on.

Remember, your kid now needs to help solve some of his own problems—and not simply get a time-out and a stern warning from you. Those days (sigh) are long gone.

"All I want to know is how school was. What do I do with these short nonanswers?"

"Fine." "Not really." "I don't remember." These kinds of clipped responses can make you crazy! Layla Gafari of San Jose, CA, has tried every method she can think of to draw information from her 8-year-old daughter, Catherine, but she's still tight as a bank vault when it comes to sharing details about school.

All kids need downtime after an intense day of learning and social drama. Think about how you feel after a grueling day. Wouldn't you rather kick off your shoes and relax before giving your spouse the blow-by-blow of what happened at work?

"Instead of interrogating your child, try a warm, low-key 'Hi! Welcome home! I'd love to hear about your day whenever you feel like talking,' " says Faber. Your child might choose to talk with you later, or she might not—and that's okay, too. "Some kids don't feel the need to hash everything over with you," she explains. "Instead, they use the time to let their own thoughts and solutions grow. They're developing their own resilience, and that's wonderful."

But if your child just needs some help priming the pump of conversation, try asking more specific, open-ended questions like "What did you work on in art class today?" or "What do the kids actually do at recess?" It's even fair game to ask "Did anyone get in trouble or do anything funny today?" or "What was the worst thing about today and what was the best?" Give your child time to answer. Some kids need to ponder the question for a few minutes before deciding what to share. The trick is not to push too hard: If you ask a few questions to show you're interested and then stay patient, you may get answers—in 15 minutes. Or an hour.