Joanna Goddard dining room

Joanna Goddard dining room

Whenever we’ve had a change in our lives — like a new apartment or new baby or new school — I’ve wanted to give my kids extra support and hear how they’re feeling. And that’s been especially true since Alex and I separated. What’s going on in their sweet little hearts and minds?

But, of course, even the chattiest kids don’t always find it easy to bare their souls. Although children may seem light and playful throughout the day, bigger emotions sometimes marinate under the surface. And kids, like adults, might not even know how they’re feeling. Things can get muddled and confusing. Life is hard! Brains are weird!

Over the past few months, to create space, I gave my kids extra long bedtime cuddles and played board games and walked with them to get ice cream and offered foot rubs, despite their stinky preteen feet. And it was going… okay?

But then something unexpected happened.

One evening, we invited three neighborhood families over for lasagna and put a bunch of Play-Doh and little tools on our dining table. The younger kids played with it that evening, and afterward, the Play-Doh stayed out on the dining room table, as things often do.

I didn’t think much of it, until a new ritual began to develop. After school, the boys would drift into the dining room to stretch and shape the Play-Doh. And if I sat down with them, they’d often open up. Our hands — and half our brains — were occupied; we weren’t looking at each other; no one felt any need to keep a conversation going. The overall mood was meditative, safe, and casual. Thoughts could drift in and out and suddenly felt easy to share; questions came up that hadn’t been asked before. It was incredible.

What a happy accident. When I mentioned this to a friend, he compared it to driving with your kids, where you might find yourself having deep, low-pressure, zero-eye-contact conversations. We don’t often drive in NYC, so maybe this set-up takes the place of that. Although, it should be said, there is nothing in this world more satisfying than squeezing Play-Doh through a tiny spaghetti maker.

Thoughts? What environments or questions help your kids open up? I’d love to hear…

P.S. How to talk to kids, including about sex, death, periods and consent; and my kids’ hilariously passive-aggressive notes.