“Hi, sweetie. How was your day?” you ask, as your child comes out of school. “Fine.” You try again. “What did you do?” “Nothing much,” they say. Maybe you get the occasional variation – “I can’t remember.” Sound familiar? You’re not alone if you’re wondering how to get your child to tell you about their day.
This was pretty much how the conversation went with both my kids during their early years at school. As a governor, I had closer contact with teachers and ancillary staff than most parents, but the lack of feedback from my children was still frustrating. It took a while to work out how to coax more information from them. This is what I learned.
Remember it’s not deliberate
The first step was realising they weren’t doing it on purpose. ‘How was your day?’ might sound like a simple question but it covers so much ground, especially for a young child. We’re asking for too much in one go, or maybe they’re unsure what it is we want to know. Rather than struggle to marshal their thoughts, it’s easier to simply respond ‘Fine’.
Ask your child questions with definite answers so that they can reply confidently. “Who did you sit next to at lunch?” is an easy one. Or “Did you have a spelling test?” You could also ask them what the funniest or best thing that happened was. Slowly, they’ll get used to sharing the day’s events with you.
Give them time
Your child is a different person at school. There are different rules and expectations. Unfamiliar social situations to navigate. Once they get home, they can relax – so let them. Make it a habit to give them some downtime. A snack and half an hour’s peace can go a long way to helping a child reset. Afterward, they’ll feel more like talking to you – about their day, or anything else.
Don’t overwhelm your child with endless questions straight away or they’re likely to shut down. Take your cue from them. If they’re answering freely and eagerly, you’re okay to keep going. If you’re getting one-word answers, dial back a little. Maybe talk about what you did today instead, with the occasional question to them. Encourage two-way communication – don’t make them feel they’re being cross-examined.
Gene Beresin, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says: “Kids shouldn’t be put on the spot. If they sense you’re prying, you need to back off.”
Don’t put them under pressure
Kids know their parents want them to do well at school. And if they feel you’re disappointed in them or comparing them to their peers, they’re likely to clam up. They certainly won’t tell you if they’re worried about falling behind.
I can still recall with absolute clarity the terror I felt at age 10 when I couldn’t understand a particular mathematical process. Every day, the teacher would call me up to the blackboard to work out an example. Every day, I got it wrong. I was too scared to say anything at home in case my parents were disappointed in me.
Keep worries for another time
If you suspect something is wrong at school – that your child is struggling or being bullied – be careful about how you try to get more information. Your child is likely to close down if they suspect you’re digging for information. They need to feel it’s safe to share.
Dr. Adam Cox, author of Boys of Few Words: Raising Our Sons to Communicate and Connect, suggests: “Try playing a game or reading together, and see what topics naturally arise. Sometimes we try to get information too fast. Doing an activity together can help him feel less guarded.”
Talk to others
Children genuinely forget what happened earlier during the day. Their ‘working memory’ – the bit of the brain that temporarily stores information – is still developing. Get to know other parents and make sure you foster a good relationship with your child’s class teacher or head of year. You’ll feel easier having a ‘backup’ to turn to if there’s something you feel you should know, and you’ll also be able to prompt your child sometimes: “Lucy’s mum says there was a special assembly today for World Book Day. Was it fun?”