There isn’t one right way, one perfect question, or one right time to have these conversations. Here are some suggestions to try:
Greet your child with an enthusiastic hello. Try saying “great to see you!” or “I missed you!” or simply, “I hope you had a good day,” instead of “How was school?” These statements communicate what you really feel without instantly putting your child on the spot with a question. As a result, your child is more likely to speak about her day.
Allow your child not to talk right after school. Many kids don’t want to talk the minute they walk in the door. They want to have a snack, call a friend, or just chill out. (Think about how you feel when you walk in after a long day at work. Wouldn’t you rather put your feet up and talk later?)
Learn about your child’s life at school. The more details you know about your child’s school experience, the more valuable your questions will be. If you know the teacher reads a story every day, ask “What story did Mrs. Younger read today?” If you know the teacher’s newsletter comes home on Wednesday, set up a ritual to read it together at dinner. If you visit your child’s classroom, make note of new things you might want to discuss with your child later.
Say what’s on your mind. If what you really need to know is “How did you do on the math test?” just ask. If you fish around, your child will resent it more. “But keep in mind that if you frequently ask questions about tests, that’s all kids will think you care about,” notes Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D.
Avoid face-to-face interrogations. You might do better in situations where you’re not face-to-face like the car, when your child takes a bath, or when you are cooking. In this way, your child won’t feel put on the spot.
Let the talk emerge naturally. Discuss the day while you cook dinner, read together, or check homework. But try not to use dinner as a time to talk about problems like homework or tests. Everybody needs a break!
Listen before you talk. Let your child lead you into conversations on her own. Sometimes your child will drop hints without your asking, like “We planted seeds today!” or “Where’s the atlas? I need to find Antarctica.” These are perfect openings to talk together about school.
Try communicating without words. The best way to make contact with your child isn’t necessarily through talking. “We want our children to talk with us — because talking is our way of communicating. But talk is not how all kids express themselves: play is,” notes Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D. “If we insist they talk our way, we may not get much information, but if we play on their terms, we might. Many children would prefer to reconnect with a hug, by playing a game, or rough housing. Some are more physical than verbal, so you might ask them to give you thumbs up or thumbs down about school, instead of describing it.”
Talk about funny things that happened to you. One of the best ways to stimulate conversation is to talk about funny stuff kids can relate to. “A great way to start conversation is to describe an interesting and funny event from your day. Kids will then respond and talk about interesting things that happened to them,” adds Cohen. Talk about the skunk you passed on the way to work. Talk about the toilet paper that got stuck to your shoe. Talk about the booger you saw hanging from your boss’ nose. Your kids will laugh and probably start talking to you — even the older ones.
Don’t jump in to fix your child’s problem immediately. If your child brings up a problem like “I hate my teacher!” take it in stride. First, find out what else your child has to say and what he wants to do about it. You might encourage your child to figure out solutions by asking, “What do you think you want to do about this?” and “Is there something you’d like me to do?” Follow up later with “How did your new strategies work?” or “You haven’t mentioned math class lately, does that mean it’s going better?” If the problem is serious, discuss it with the school.
Help children develop their own solutions. Don’t feel you need to supply the right answer yourself. Instead, share ideas about possible solutions that will help your child feel better. “This is a way to help your child see you as an ally who will support him when problems come up. By helping your child figure it out for himself, you are also giving him a whole set of tools for solving the problems independently as he gets older,” advises Diane Levin, Ph.D.