How to Really Talk with Your Kids
For starters, do not ask them, “How was your day?”
There is one question that all mothers, sooner or later, learn to never let escape their lips: How was school today?
It’s not a particularly invasive question or too personal or too demanding. At worst it’s just too vague. It either leads to grunts or a complete non-response. I used to ask it when my kids climbed into the car at the end of a long day of school. But I finally realized that it led nowhere, that it heralded the end of the conversation rather than the beginning.
Why does “How was school today?” make children so uncomfortable? I think it’s the very open-ended nature of the query. Like when someone asks me, “What’s new?” I never know the appropriate response to such a question. Is it nothing – which unless you live in a cave is just not true. Is it “Oh you know, status quo” – which is just a way of avoiding answering. Or is it a long-drawn out description of the all the new challenges in my life. Somehow I don’t think that’s what they were anticipating.
So the question makes us uncomfortable because we don’t know where to begin. We don’t know what the listener wants to hear or how personal we should be.
I think we put our children in a similar position. We may have time but they are tired, hungry, and don’t have the energy for a long answer. If anything personal happened, they don’t want to reveal it in front of a friend or sibling. Perhaps they sense that all we really want to hear is “Great” and not another saga of fighting with a teacher or struggles on the playground. Maybe nothing stands out to be shared. They want to forget the day and relax. There are many possibilities.
And yet, as parents, we naturally want to engage with our kids at the end of a long day. We don’t want their teachers to get the “best” of them!
One possible approach is to be more specific.
“I know you were concerned about the math test; were the questions easier or harder than you anticipated?”
“I remember you mentioning there was a bake sale today. What looked the most delicious?”
“I know we bought those new pastels for art class. What are you working on?”
The more specific the question, the better. It makes it harder for them to weasel out of answering (!) but more importantly it lets them know that you really care, that you are really listening, you aren’t just making conversation.
Even with our children it may sometimes feel like the conversation is pro forma. We’re saying the things they expect to hear, making the comments parents are supposed to make. Our children are sensitive to these nuances. They want a conversation that’s about them, not just words to fill the space until you pull into the driveway.
Making real conversation requires real effort and real listening. We are also frequently tired at the end of the day. We may want to just ask the question, get it answered and get it out of the way. We need to free up our energy for the tasks to come – homework, dinner, bedtime…
But if we don’t ask the real questions, we miss the real opportunities – to understand our kids’ lives, their academic needs and concerns, their social joys and woes, their emotional ups and downs. This is the real work of parenting, the work that can’t be delegated or pushed off.
We may still instinctively say “How was your day?” but we can catch ourselves and follow up with “Did you end up playing dodge ball like you imagined? How did it go?” “What book did you choose for your book report? Oh, why that one?” You get my drift…
And so will they…