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A Blog from Your Kaiser Permanente Pediatricians in Northern California

Girl in doorway at school

Getting Kids to Talk After School: Beyond “How Was Your Day?”

At the end of a long day at school, there’s nothing a kid wants to answer less than, “How was your day?” And yet, that’s what all of us parents ask. Why doesn’t this question work? 

From our perspective, our child has been off at school and we missed them! We want in on their experience – we want to know what they’ve been up to and feel a part of their lives.

From their perspective, the school day was long, tiring, maybe boring, and for many kids, the last thing they want to do is relive it! How do we respect their feelings and also stay in touch with their world?

I’ve heard that some kids are actually very chatty after school! If you have one of those kids, enjoy their willingness to talk! The rest of us need some advice for connecting with our kids post-school.

Here are a few tips:

Be sneaky. Try a low-key, “light lead” approach. Like a fisherman hooking a fish, you want to be a bit stealthy! If you’re home when they arrive after school, welcome your child with a hug and food. Kids hate it when we pay more attention to our phones than to them – so put yours down. Have some snacks ready in the kitchen and hang there (nonchalantly) while they eat. You might hear quite a bit.

If they aren’t talking, try asking questions that let them know you’re interested and ready to listen. Don’t ask questions that can be answered with one word – because that’s all you’ll get! Try, “What was something interesting (difficult, fun) that happened today?” Or, “Who did you sit with at lunch?” and, “What was a cool thing you learned?”

Use what you already know about their day. Be sure to know their schedules and teachers. This helps you connect with your child – from kindergarten through college – by having some inside scoop to start a conversation. What projects are they working on? Which teacher or class do they like or dislike?

Talk first. If they aren’t opening up, try my favorite tip: Tell them about your day instead! This takes the pressure off your child and models the give and take of sharing. Let them know what made you think of them, or share a funny story.

Ask the juicy questions. It may sound awful but asking, “Who got into trouble today?” is one of the best questions for getting a young kid to open up! You can also ask if any of their friends are having a rough time in school. These questions let your child tell you all about their day indirectly. They end up talking about the hierarchies among kids, the cliques, the struggles, and their teachers – all without noticing how much you’re learning. It also allows you to model compassion and problem solving as you talk things through.

Back off (then try later). Sometimes the best approach is to wait a bit. Make it a habit to eat dinner together as a family and to share about your day then. Try these conversation starters:

  • What were the best and worst things that happened today?
  • What made you laugh?
  • What 3 things are you grateful for and why?
  • If you were in charge, what rules would you change at school (or at home)? Which would you add?
  • If there’s a prominent news event, bring it up and ask kids if they have any thoughts or concerns about it.
  • Ask, “Did anything surprise you?”

Go to school and see for yourself. One of the best ways to understand your child’s life at school is to volunteer. Most teachers are eager for parents to help in the classroom, and your PTA is always looking for help with school-wide projects. You can start in elementary school and continue to some degree through middle and high school. If your family and work schedule don’t allow much time for volunteering, be sure to attend parent-teacher conferences, back-to-school nights, and open houses.

Finally, know that after a long day at school kids may simply be too tired to answer your questions. After all they’ve probably been answering questions all day at school! They may just want your company. So stay nearby relaxing or doing your own work. Keep your phone off and away. In time, you may be surprised by some unexpected chatter from your child.

Note: I crowd-sourced ideas for this this article on Twitter. Many of these suggestions are from my friends there. Check out @FDP_Tweets (The Family Dinner Project is a wonderful source of ideas for dinnertime family connection), @EWardRD, @DNich09, @aelavance, @Clairesears72, @Doctor_V, @KPobgyndoc.

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