Every day it goes something like this:
You wade through the pick-up line to see their smiling face waiting for you (or maybe scowling, if you have a moody tween). It has been hours since you saw them and you can’t wait to hear about what they learned and experienced while they were away from you.
“How was school today?” you ask, excited to hear all the details.
It feels a bit like a door slamming in your face, doesn’t it? Each time you ask, you get a variation of the same. You really want to hear, but they really don’t want to tell you.
Or do they? My daughter was the queen of “Fine,” and “I don’t remember,” but I if I’ve learned that if hit her with just the right question, or give her a little quiet space while we drive, I get a gem of a story about her day. I love those little windows into her life away from me. They help me understand her better, which can only be good for our relationship.
But how do you prise out those gems when the mine is locked up with the word, “Fine,” scrolled across the front door?
Here are some strategies that might work:
Perfect your timing
Does your child need time to decompress after school? A snack immediately? And for goodness sake, make sure there are no screens in front of anyone’s faces for this conversation! If you don’t see your kids immediately after school, you may find that dinner or bedtime is the best time to have a relaxed conversation with them.
Ask a Better Question
Ask really specific questions. So MANY things happened at school today, he might not know where to start. Instead, “Who did you sit next to at lunch?” or “Did anyone visit your classroom today?” or “Which rule was the hardest to follow today?” (there is a great list of questions here on Parent.co )
If your child seems like they’ve had a hard day, try using humor to get them talking. (“If an alien spaceship came to your class and beamed someone up, who would you want them to take?” or “Is there anyone in your class that needs a time out?”)
Arm yourself with insider knowledge so you can ask for details. Check the school calendar for this week’s events. Review the day’s lunch menu. Have you been in the classroom lately? While you are there, make note of things you want to ask about. What is hanging on the walls? What’s on the classroom calendar? Is there a student or activity being highlighted somewhere in the room? When you child feels like you know and care what’s going on during their day, they will feel more comfortable talking about it.
Try open-ended questions. You will get a more interesting answer from a question like, “How did you feel when that happened?” than, “Did that make you mad?” which can be answered with “Yes,” or “No.”
Be an awesome listener
My daughter’s teacher has her class physically turn on listening ears – they turn them on like hearing aids. Silly and effective! Use your special listening ears for these conversations to help keep them moving along.
Can you get any clues from the answer? I recently asked Stella about her class “job” for the day and she said she didn’t do a job. But she sounded sad. So my next question was, “What did you do instead of your job?” Which allowed me to hear how her classroom was a bit chaotic that day and she was feeling really tired – a good thing to know! I adjusted our plans for the afternoon to give her some extra down time.
If the answer is still vague, ask a different question or get even more specific. If you sense your child really doesn’t want to talk, ask if they’d rather talk later.
Silence is uncomfortable, but let there be gaps in the conversation. My daughter ruminates. If I let her be quiet for a minute, often she’ll continue and let me in on what she’s just been thinking about in the silence. Stay active in your listening, but let there be quiet.
Be a super conversationalist
Respond in a way that lets them know you are listening. If she says, “We had a fire drill today,” Ask, “What do you do when there’s a fire drill?” There’s really nothing more annoying than someone who asks a question and then doesn’t seem to care about the answer. That’s a conversation killer.
Let the conversation flow, you don’t need to interrogate! Maybe her telling you about a souvenir someone brought to show and tell will lead to a conversation about a culture they’d like to learn more about. Isn’t that more interesting then what happened after lunch? Come to the conversation with an attitude of curiosity (this works in any conversation with anyone – try it the next time you are at a social event!).
Be careful not to solve their problems for them. If your child is telling you about a challenging situation, ask probing questions like, “What did you do next? How did that feel? What do you think you will do if this happens again?” Remember they are learning to be independent – and you want them to! Don’t lecture. Don’t offer unsolicited advice – not right now.
To keep the conversation rolling just repeat the cycle: Ask a question, listen to the answer, respond. The more often you practice these skills (for both you and them), the more comfortable they will be opening up and sharing with you. Remember that fluid, engaging conversation is a learned skill. We learn these skills both by observing and engaging – family dinners are a great place for practicing if after-school conversations are still feeling bumpy and awkward.
I really look forward to hearing about my daughter’s day now. Some days she’s quiet and I just have to live with it. But most days she’ll share a couple of details that tell me about so much more than her day – they tell me about her. And that’s a fine gem worth waiting for.
What surprising things have you learned from your kids about their day? Share a story in the comments below.