It is the question that parents ask their children after school, “How was your day?” Accordingly, parents usually hear “fine”, “OK” or other one word answers in response. I get it. My children have never been the kind to lightheartedly ooze details of their lives when asked. Until recently, I have always chalked up their brief answers to general questions from inheriting my distaste of being quizzed and stale small-talk.
But, one word answers are not solely reserved for irksome teenagers. Short responses are actually quite common among young children too. Further, in giving single word answers to questions, children are not trying to be obnoxious or antisocial, but may be experiencing a type of deficiency in their ability to recall specific experiences, which is developmentally appropriate and normal.
In the book, The Philosophical Baby by Dr. Alison Gopnik, it is explained that young children have episodic memory skills (those that allow a person to recall specific autobiographical events from the past) like adults, but that they function in a different way than adult’s episodic memory. Instead of the memories being controlled by internal cues, a child’s episodic memory is triggered by external cues, like a parent asking about their day. Children actually have a keen ability to recall very specific details of an autobiographical memory. But, in most cases, these details must be cued by something happening to the child in real time, like smelling hot dogs from a street cart which remind them of the one they had for lunch.
The vague questions that adults usually ask each other to elicit small talk like, “How was your day?” or “How are you doing?” are not an effective way to jump start child conversations, according to Gopnik. Adults can easily think back over an entire day and pinpoint unusual moments which are worth mentioning, but children are not wired in the same way. Instead, parents are advised to asked detailed questions about a child’s day aimed to cue specific episodic memory fragments and, hopefully, get the child talking. This means that the next time I pick up my preschooler from her morning classes, I should ask, “Who did you sit by in music class today?” instead of “How was music class this morning?”
If you’re worried that asking detailed questions will cause you to miss out on important, juicy details from your child’s day, rest assured that young children are renown for their abilities to give off-the-wall and out-of-context answers to questions when they have something on their mind. But, just in case, you can always concluded your daily recap with asking a general question like, “Is there anything else that you want to share about your day?”
*For more information on addressing lying behaviors in young children, click here.
If you are regularly hearing odd responses to questions that you are certain are not true or you are concerned that your child is lying to you about the details of their day, know that sharing inaccurate or made-up experiences is common and could be the result of a child’s immature episodic memory. And, while it can useful to gently teach a child about the importance of sharing accurate accounts of their experiences (i.e. avoid lying), fantastical and inaccurate sharing is not a huge concern at this stage.