When you’re ready to sit down and have a chat with your elementary school child — whether it’s to find out how her day went or to have “the talk” — there is definitely a right way and a wrong way to do it. And if you happen to try the latter, you may well run smack-dab into a dead end.

“Talking to our children in a way that lets them express what is on their mind is extremely important,” explains Dr. Atilla Ceranoglu, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. “Talking to children from early on keeps both child and parent attuned to one another. It is solid preparation for the more stormy, tumultuous days of adolescence.”

An expert in parent-child communication, Ceranoglu offers tips on how to avoid the most common mistakes parents make when trying to get kids to talk.

Getting real with your child

Child: “Where do babies come from?”
Parent: “What?”
Child: “Babies — Julia says it’s super-gross.”
Parent: “Um, can we talk about this later? I’m, uh, sort of busy. Oh, why don’t you ask your dad when he gets home… or maybe your teacher will be talking about this.”
Child: “But Mom!
Parent (madly searching Wikipedia): “Well, uh, er, let’s see. Uh, OK, yeah, here we go: ‘Sexual reproduction is a biological process by which organisms create descendants that have a combination of genetic material contributed from two (usually) different members of the species. Each of two parent organisms contributes half of the offspring’s genetic makeup by creating haploid gametes.’ Are you with me so far?”
Child: “Huh? What are you talking about? I thought they came from your tummy!”

The top three mistakes parents make when talking to elementary school kids

The dreaded “where do babies come from” question can come at you at any time. If you don’t want to be left stammering (or leave your child more confused than when she started), you have to be prepared. And if your child never asks, at some point you’re going to have to take the bull by the horns and have “the talk” — about sex, drugs, and all the potential pitfalls of the teenage years. Few parents are eager to tackle these thorny subjects, and even fewer are confident of the right way to approach them since every child is different. No matter the topic, there are a few things to avoid:

  1. Waiting too long

    There is no such thing as “too early” when bringing up these issues. Start introducing the topic of her body as early as 7 or 8 years old. Some children will hit puberty by age 10, so it’s important that you’ve addressed the topic beforehand so they understand what’s happening to them. And don’t wait for your child to ask questions — you should bring it up if she hasn’t.

  2. Offering TMI (too much information).

    When your 6-year-old asks how babies are made, there’s no need to launch into a full description of sexual intercourse. Keep it simple, and answer any questions your child has. Now is not the time to talk about sexually transmitted diseases, rape, oral sex, etc.

  3. Being unprepared and uncomfortable.

    Kids pick up on their parents’ feelings, so if you’re awkward and hesitant, they will know it. Before you have the talk, think about what you want to say — and how you want to say it.

What works when trying to get kids to talk

Ceranoglu says that as a general rule when talking to elementary school kids, think small. “Younger children require quick, bite-size information instead of lengthy descriptions,” he says. “My rule of thumb is, if you are taking more than 30 seconds to make a point, you probably already lost the child’s attention.”

He suggests making short, easy-to-remember mantras of the points you want your child to remember. It’s great to give a full explanation of why drugs are bad, but follow that up with a quick summary, such as “If it does not belong in your body, it is poison.” For a discussion on safety and preventing abuse, you may conclude it with “Only Mom, Dad, and the doctor can ask to look at your private parts,” which you can repeat frequently.

“There is a reason slogans work: They are memorable and repeatable,” says Ceranoglu.