4. What to ask when the kids come home from school

We start exploring specifics with a classic – what to say or ask when the kids come home from school. I think everyone reading this will recognize the situation. You are curious. You really do care. You want to reach out to your son or daughter. You want to build an even more constructive relationship. You want to start a meaningful conversation and exchange of ideas and experiences.

So what do you say or ask? Recognize these examples?

– So how was school today?

– Anything special happen at school today?

– So what did you do at school today?

– What did you learn at school today?

– Everything OK today?

– What’s up? (What’s new?)

– Tell me about your day.

I think you will also recognize these responses:

– Fine

– No

– Nothing special.

– Don’t remember.

– Yeah, everything’s OK.

– Nothing

– Another time. Gotta go.

Well, what did you expect? Maybe…

– Today, we had an intense discussion in Mrs. Lambert’s class about the differences between the French and American revolutions. Did you know that….

– Today, we started a new project, and Mr. Jorgenson organized the groups in a really funny, surprising, happenstance way. Want me to tell you about it?

– One of the most interesting things we did at school today was to go on a Peace Walk with someone in the class we usually don’t talk to. We had three questions to ask each other. It was fun to get to know another person a bit more. Want to know the questions?

Yeah, sure….I say sarcastically. Do those types of responses happen regularly? If so, congratulations! Really! 

Let’s face it, those types of responses are rare. So let’s approach this in another way. Lower your expectations. If you get into a good give-and-take conversation, that’s great, but even a very brief, ten-second interchange has its value, and I think you should be very pleased if your child or young adult gives any detail whatsoever about what happened at school that day.

Specific in-specific out

How can you make that happen?

One of the best rules of good communication is “specific in-specific out.” You’ve heard of the computer programming rule that says junk in-junk out. It only takes one 1 or 0 mistake, and the program will not work correctly, so you have to be very careful entering your code.

It’s the same thing in a conversation. Ask a general question; you will get a general response. That could be OK, but you have to ask something specific if you want more.

You can surely start with some general questions, but let these questions have a bit more “character” What I mean is that, “How’d it go today?” could be replaced by “What’s the most interesting thing that happened today?” That’s still a bit general. Will that get you a Eureka response? No, surely not. Eureka doesn’t happen very often, but you are gaining a couple of things here: 

– You are showing interest.

– You are showing that you care.

– You are showing curiosity, assuming you don’t ask with body language that says you don’t have time to listen.

– You are giving an opening.

This last point is important. Don’t always expect or even go for detailed responses. Be happy if they just look up at you or out into space to think about your questions. Yes, they may think you are overbearing, and you do not want to dig and delve or demand a response. Instead, you are simply giving them something to think about and, again, providing an important opening.

Other examples where specific may lead to specifics:

– “Anything special happen in Mr. Jorgenson’s class?” is much better than, “How was school today?” 

– “What was one example of a question that was on the test today?” is much better than “How’d it go on the test?”

– “Who were you with at recess?” is better than “Did you have fun today?”

– “What is one question you are sure will be on the test on Tuesday?” is better than, “What do you have to do to get a good grade on the test on Tuesday?”

– “What is your job in that new group project?” is better than, “How are things going on that new project?

You still may not get a detailed response. These questions may still might not lead to any deeper conversation. That’s perfectly fine. You are giving an opening that helps your son or daughter get to a more specific answer, but you won’t always get a detailed answer.

Remember your long-term goal – enhancing relationships and a sense of trust. Give lots of openings without expectations of responses. Asking more specific questions increases the likelihood of better responses, but not always. You demonstrate your caring and curiosity, and that’s the main point.

There are other opportunities in other situations, of course, not just after school.

– After sports practice

– After a trip

– After a party

– After meeting friends

– After watching a show or movie

– After playing a computer game

Or just a follow-up to the general question of “How you doing?”

Homework: Now it’s time to practice. Tell a friend or your partner what you asked differently today and tell them how it went. Just don’t expect miracles. Remember, you are investing in your relationship, so don’t overwhelm; just create an opening. What are examples of “specific” opening phrases or questions you used this week?