Why is it so hard to talk about school? Parents often get exasperated with kids’ monosyllabic answers to their simple questions. That one well-intentioned line, “How was school today?” has probably provoked more bad feelings between parents and kids than either party ever intended. “‘How was school today?’ is a frustrating question for both parents and kids,” notes Michael Thompson, Ph.D., author of “The Pressured Child.” “Parents never get the answer they want and often don’t understand how difficult this question really is. Without meaning to, parents are asking for a summary but kids don’t summarize the way adults do. So most kids just say ‘fine’ or try to avoid the question entirely.” And then the problem escalates. “Many parents will repeat this question if they don’t get a good enough response because they don’t know how else to ask it.”
Fortunately, some simple strategies can get kids and parents talking and listening. “What was fun? What was the worst part of the day? Did your teacher explain that math homework? How did soccer go?” However, communicating effectively about school goes deeper than just asking the right questions. “What are the goals of talking with kids about school and what is the role of the adult in these conversations?” “More than just finding out how their day was, we want to help kids become problems solvers and independent learners. Good conversations help kids see we care about their lives, that we are there to support them, and to help them develop strategies for solving problems themselves.” So why don’t our kids want to tell us about their day at school? And why do we think we need to know every detail? And how can we become more effective listeners? To find out, take a look at the situation from your child’s perspective and compare it to your own.
1. “How was school?” and “how are you?” are not really questions — they’re greetings. A problem arises because we expect an answer. But the question is so general that it’s difficult for kids to answer, particularly when they are on overload from a challenging day at school. “What parents are trying to do when they ask ‘how was school?’ is to make contact with your child,” But we don’t realize that the question “how was school” may not be the most effective way to connect.
2. Kids often think adults ask too many questions. And they are right, we do. Adults are often just trying to start a conversation and don’t understand that their questions make a child feel put on the spot. Be aware that a question from a big person like you can place demands on a small child, even though you don’t mean it that way. It’s important to also be clear why you are asking children about school. Is it merely chit chat, are you looking for something more meaningful, and are you communicating in ways that relate to your child’s experience?
3. School can be hard for kids and that’s why it’s hard for them to talk about it. Every day at school, kids get things wrong and make mistakes. That’s how they learn. But generally, kids don’t want to come home and say, “I was frustrated by my mistakes but I learned from them.” They would rather come home and say, “I got everything right.” Their feelings about meeting the expectations of their teachers, their parents, and themselves can make school a challenging topic to discuss.
So — should we stop asking questions? No. But you might ask fewer ones and try not to get crazy when your kids don’t respond the way you want them to. Remember that if your kids don’t want to talk, it’s not a rejection of you. When you do speak, try to find ways to discuss what’s meaningful to both your child and you, because this shows that you care.