We all remember that classic question from our parents on the way home or around the dinner table. “How was school?”, they’d ask, along with every other parent in the world, to which we’d join the chorus of children replying, “fine”, ending the discussion in its tracks. I remember that simple well meaning question like it was yesterday, and how it rarely yielded more than a one word answer, and yet now that I’m a parent I often catch myself asking it as well. Why?
The reality is, we love our children and want to know how they spend their hours at school, but when our paths cross at the end of the day, we’re usually too exhausted to be creative and so resort to that unhelpful classic. We can do better! Here are some fairly effortless ways to dig deeper into conversation with our kids after school.
Start by helping them transition from school to home
I often make the mistake of asking my kids within the first minute of seeing them after school how their day was. Low blood sugar, fatigue, and a change of context demand snacks and rest before a barrage of questions, no matter how well intentioned they are. If your child seems grouchy or distant after school, don’t automatically assume something awful happened at school – give them a minute to transition into their home life and for heaven’s sake give them some food! Once I started greeting my children at the school yard with food and a smile and no expectations, our after school conversations became more natural.
Pro tip: let their after school snack be the highlight of the day’s menu. We pack healthy snacks (think carrot sticks and apple slices) in their lunches for the day and mealtimes are rarely their favourite foods (except Fridays which are always pizza night), but after school I bring out the cookies, cake, and milky tea. I want my kids to look forward to coming home from school not just because their studying is over for the day, but because home is their favourite place, and a place where they can open up and be known.
Set the example by being honest and detailed
Parents often forget that their kids are fascinated by them, especially in the younger years. We want to know every detail of our children’s days but doubt they care much about what we did. This may not hold true in high school, though I’m planning to test the theory some day, but as for younger children, they love hearing stories about their parents. By going first you model for your child that sharing a part of their day can be as simple as telling a short story. Set the example by sharing a story you’d like to hear from your children, for example
“today at the office I sat with Jenny the receptionist over lunch. I’d never sat with her before and she had the most interesting lunch. It gave me some ideas for what I’d like to pack next week. Who did you sit beside and what were they having for lunch?”
“today my boss was really stressed about an upcoming project and the whole office was a bit tense. It’s funny how one person can change the mood of the entire room isn’t it? Was your teacher in a good mood today?”
Ask questions that can’t be answered with one word
This is the surest way to avoid the “fine” answer I grew up giving to my parents. Ask them about something, how they felt at a certain part of the day, what they did at recess, who they sat with at lunch, what story they read at story time, what they dreamed about during nap time, and who the funniest child is in their class. These questions allow your child to tell a short story and as you engage with their story, suddenly they’re sharing parts of their day you didn’t even know to ask about!
We long to know our kids well and to feel a part of their world even after they’ve started going to school for much of the day, so let’s do the relational work to get there by making home a haven, setting the example, and being creative communicators.