What I learned about interviewing kids from my series on family evictions
Photo by Ginny Monk
The first time I met Elijah, who was 10 at the time, he was eager to show me the board games he got for Christmas and his stuffed animal collection. He was less eager to talk about how he felt when his family faced eviction.
We talked for a little over an hour about the things he cared about most. We chatted about “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” his favorite recess games, and which superhero we might like to be, in the event we got to choose. After that, while we played soccer, he started to open up about his experience.
He said he had felt scared. He felt sad. He wanted to offer his advice to other kids who were going through eviction — he thought he might be able to help.
That advice: “You’re going to move soon, and you’ll have your room again,” was included in a coloring book The Connecticut Mirror produced to help other kids understand eviction.
Elijah was one of many children I talked to about evictions as I reported a series called “Notice to Quit,” which looked at the effects of eviction on children in Connecticut.
As I reported the series, one of the most important things for me was to center the voices of kids in the story. In this case, it meant leading with their thoughts and feelings in most of the pieces in the series.
For instance, the first story led with a moment when a teenager and his mother were sorting through their storage unit after being evicted. His clothing, the knickknacks that used to decorate his home, and his old toys were falling out of the unit. Later that day, he found out that this wasn’t the first time he’d been homeless — he just didn’t remember it because he was so young before.
That moment was so telling of his experience of working with his mother to create a sense of home, no matter where they were living. It led the series.
I talked to dozens of children, across a wide variety of ages, for this project. I met many of these kids on several occasions and I got to know them quite well. It wasn’t always easy. Talking to kids poses some unique challenges — they might be too young to understand certain issues, and you have to first get permission from both the parent and the child in order to do an interview. But the results are worth it. Too often, journalism is about kids without talking to kids.
There are certain strategies that I found made it easier for both the children and teenagers I interviewed and helped me get the information I needed.
Of course, you’ll have to adapt these methods to fit the age of the kid. For example, teenagers aren’t likely to respond to silly glasses or a game of Uno the way a younger child might. The words you use and how you phrase questions might have to change based on kids’ ages, too.
Get on their level
This advice isn’t figurative. When you’re interviewing kids, especially younger kids, it helps to literally be on their level. If they’re sitting on the floor, you should be too. If they’re standing and you have to kneel to remain eye level, that’s better than looking down at them.
Being on eye level with a child helps establish that the interaction you’re having is a positive one – it reinforces the idea that they’re not in trouble.
I’ve also found that it’s better not to overdress when you’re going to be talking with kids. Wearing the same clothes you might wear to the governor’s press conference or to cover a more formal event sends the message that the child should be formal, too.
Just as you might with any other source who hasn’t had much experience with the media, you should explain who you are and get the child’s permission to share their story. I’m going to repeat that because it’s really important: Even if you have the parent’s permission, you need the child’s full consent to talk as well. If you’re going to be interviewing them, you need to treat them like they are their own human being. They are!
Some of the younger kids I talked to for this project didn’t know the word “journalist” or what it meant. So I’d tell them I was writing a story about where people live, and I wanted to talk with them about how they’d recently had to move. Then I’d explain where the story would be – in this case, it might be in newspapers, on the internet, and parts of it might be in a book for kids.
Make sure to leave space for questions about the work, what they would need to talk about, and who you are. Several kids asked if I was a Department of Children and Families worker, and when this happened I knew I needed to find new words to explain who I was.
Make them feel comfortable first
Just as you would when talking to an adult, it’s best to spend the first bit of the interview making the child feel comfortable.
Some kids were excited to show me their toys. One wanted us both to pretend her stuffed horses were galloping across the floor while we talked. Another asked me to help him open the packaging on his new Monopoly game. I also watched a couple of the more popular kids’ movies during this project so I would be able to talk with them about the movies. For teenagers, I’d ask about school and their friends.
The goal is to find something they enjoy talking about. It helps them feel more comfortable, and it helps you get to know them. For example, through this process I found some of my favorite parts of their stories — that Lailah can count to 100, or that Loryann loves art. I included those details in my stories, and they helped to paint these kids as whole people who have interests and things they care about outside of their housing situation.
For younger kids who were still feeling shy after this, I found making them laugh helps. I carry a couple of pairs of silly glasses — one with a clown nose, the other with a mustache — for this reason. If kids are feeling particularly nervous, I sometimes wear my silly glasses through the first part of the interview. Just about anyone, particularly kids, feel better about talking if they’re able to laugh with you.
Especially for younger kids, it’s useful to have an activity while you talk. I keep Uno cards with me or sometimes give them a notebook and a crayon so they can “take notes,” too. A couple of kids liked to take turns asking questions so we could both be reporters.
Getting to the tough questions
Of course, the interview can’t be all about Uno or making kids laugh. You’ve got to ask questions about the topic you’re writing about, which can be tough for kids to talk about.
Before you even begin the conversation, it’s important to find out from the parent how much the child already knows about what happened. It helps you to be prepared. That’s also a good way to start the conversation — asking the child what happened, even if you already know.
The line of questions for this part of the interview depends on the age of the kids. For example, older children are better able to understand and articulate their emotions. Asking them how they felt about something can be pretty effective.
But younger children may not know the word for certain emotions, according to child development experts. Instead of saying they were anxious, some younger children told me they needed to sleep with a light on or needed to take breaks from class sometimes.
For younger kids, it might be better to ask how they are sleeping OK or how often they’re thinking about where they want to live. Keep the questions as open-ended as you can.
I also typically try to sprinkle in a few questions — what did you do at recess today, or what’s your favorite movie right now? These types of lighthearted questions are also a pleasant way to end the interview, as well, so you can finish the conversation on a happier note.
When we write about children, we talk to experts. We talk to parents. We talk to teachers. We talk to social workers and child development specialists. Of course, talking to these folks is important!
But too often, reporting on kids excludes the people who are most affected: the kids.
Spending significant time talking to kids about all kinds of things – movies, favorite toys, school, the things that make them feel afraid, the things that make them feel hopeful – reminded me of this all-important piece of reporting. The series was made much better by the voices of the children I got to spend time with.
Put simply: Reporting on kids needs to include kids.
Their experiences matter, and they’re often excited to tell you about it. It just might take a little bit of a different approach.