No02

A Fashion Editor’s Guide to Motherhood
Monday, 8 January 2018

Getting children to talk

If you think interviewing a fashion designer is hard, try talking to a five-year-old.

I met my husband when we trained to be newspaper journalists. We mastered 100 words-a-minute shorthand (the teacher told the rest of the class: ‘If Claire can pass, anyone can’) learnt how not to get sued for libel (someone tried at my first newspaper The Ham & High) and, perhaps most importantly, how to perfect an interview.

We were taught to listen rather than talk, be neutral not judgmental and to make people feel comfortable enough to forget why they were there, although when it came to interviewing anyone famous, I was invariably more nervous than they were. Now, as I try to get my five-year-old to tell me something, I apply the same rules.

But if interviewing fashion designers was hard, little ones are nigh-on impossible. For some advice I spoke to the Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead, who does interviews better than anyone. I asked if she thought there were similarities between getting interviewees to open up and talking to children.

Surprisingly, she told me that she uses some of the techniques recommended in the classic parenting book ‘How To Talk So Kids Will Listen, And Listen So Kids Will Talk’ by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish when talking to interviewees.

“It’s amazing how much of it applies just as well to an interviewee as to a toddler!” she told me.

 

The book, translated into 30 languages, has sold more than three million copies and Adele’s daughter, Joanna (who now has three grown-up boys of her own) has just co-written How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen.

So here are Decca’s rules on the art of the interview and Joanna’s advice on how to apply them to children.

RULE 1.

Decca says: “No one talks freely under interrogation, or if conscious of every word being recorded.”

In an interview, firing off a series of questions in the style of Jeremy Paxman only serves to make the subject feel on-the-spot and defensive, especially if you are talking about something they were uncomfortable discussing in the first place.

If I ask my eldest ‘What happened at school today? What did you learn? Who did you talk to?’ The answers are always ‘nothing’ and ‘nobody’.

There have been times when I’ve wanted to strap my eldest down and shine a light in her face but, as Joanna explains, a child doesn’t hear a question more a challenge.

“When a child is upset we want to jump in and ask ‘What’s wrong? What happened?’” she says. “But they might not be able to articulate their reasons or feel justified in them.”

Instead of interrogating, make a statement that accepts how they are feeling. ‘You look sad.’ Or: ‘You look like you had a rough day.’ Or simply: ‘Something happened.’

“Already you have let them know that it is ok to feel how they do and they will want to open up,” says Joanna. “It doesn’t seem like a big difference but it creates a very different feeling.”

 

RULE 2.

Decca says: “The art of interviewing lies in creating the atmosphere of a kitchen table chat.”

You can go into an interview with a pre-prepared agenda of what you want the person to talk about, but invariably the most interesting lines will come without planning.

The same applies even more to children. If you approach them with an agenda, they will spot it at 50 paces.

Find the place where your child feels most comfortable opening up – for my girls it’s in the bath – then be ready and all ears.

“I had very active boys with no patience for emotional conversations,” says Joanna. “But strapped into the car seat where they are not looking at you, and lying in bed at night – suddenly all the feelings of the day would flood over them.”

Practice allowing your child to express their thoughts and feelings without judgment.

“If you want a child to be open, they have to feel like they can say how they feel,” explains Joanna. “If they announce, ‘I hate my little brother.’ And you immediately jump in ‘that is a terrible thing to say, I don’t want to hear that,’ you have instantly shut down the conversation. But if you listen and say: ‘It sounds like you are really annoyed’ suddenly you will find out a lot more. You do want to guide the conversation but if you don’t take the time to accept their feelings, why should they listen to you?”

RULE 3

Decca says: “It is impossible to have a good conversation if what you’re actually doing while the other person is talking is waiting for your turn.”

 

If I were to sit in an interview looking at a list of questions waiting for them to finish to ask the next, I’d be lucky to get more than one-word answers.

There is an art to conversation with your child as with an interviewee and you have to practice.

“Don’t grill them the minute they walk through the door,” explains Joanna. “Allow them to unwind, say: ‘When you are ready, come and tell me about your show-and-tell or your school trip’. That way it feels like an invitation rather than a demand. Try making talking about their day more fun and engaging. When you are sitting around the dinner table play Truth or Lie where everyone tells one thing from their day which was true and one that wasn’t and everyone has to guess which is which.”

 

RULE 4.

Decca says: “With most people, it’s just a matter of asking their permission. ‘Can I ask you a dreadfully rude question?’ may sound rhetorical, but I’ve found people usually answer, and almost always with a yes.”

 

It’s not just in interviews – if you want to pique a person’s interest ask if they would mind you asking something and get them to initially comply. This works as well for children.

As Joanna says: “When parents rap out a command they often don’t get a response. I can’t tell you the number of times people asked me if I had had my son’s hearing checked as he didn’t flinch when I called him. One of the things I learned that has endured into teenage years is to ask a question. ‘Dan, I have a question for you, let me know when you are ready to hear it.” That was a magical phrase I started using from when he was very young. It made him curious, but it was also respectful.”

 

RULE 5.

Decca says: “More often than not, the subject someone says they do not want to discuss is the one they really want to talk about.”

Pretty much every interview will have topics that are firmly off-limits. These will also most often be at the forefront of an interviewee’s mind and will be the issues they most want to get off their chest. The same is true for children. They will allude to the issue playing on their minds – a name from the playground perhaps – but when questioned directly they will clam up. You have to be alert and tread very carefully.

Joanna says: “Resist the impulse to press them on a sensitive subject, some things they are not ready to say, and it’s ok for them to keep some of those private feelings to themselves. Be there for when they want to talk, making accepting statements rather than interrogating. If there are any topics that feel too close to home, stories are a great way to explore things that you don’t want to ask directly – you will be amazed at what comes out.

Remember, you can’t protect your child from all of life’s conflicts but having someone there that they can come home to, and make them feel alright about themselves, gives them a pretty solid base.”