Most parents like to ask their child about their day when they collect them from school. Answers can vary between a full, rich and coherent account including amusing anecdotes about what their friends said and what they learned in each lesson, to a one-word response along the lines of, "OK / fine / dunno". If the latter rings truer for you most of the time, or even just sometimes, we have some hints and tips to tease tales out of your child and keep a dialogue going.
Why is it important to talk?
Asking interesting questions helps us to understand someone better and to strengthen our relationship with them. Being able to build better relationships with people – including family, friends and people at work – depends on our ability to show a genuine interest in them, which sends a message that they are important to us. Feeling valued and appreciated is important to our well-being. Asking questions and taking part in conversations is one way of contributing to a safe and meaningful relationship which sees both parents and children thrive and flourish. It also helps children to make sense of their world and safely bring up any concerns that they may have.
Why do children sometimes give one-word answers?
Asking a child about their day can often be too big a question for them. So much has happened in just a few hours that it may be difficult for them to express it. They've learned a lot of new information and been in a room with thirty other people. Outside of the classroom, they have interacted with their peers and made, strengthened or broken friendships. It's all incredibly intense and often tiring!
It's important to not take monosyllabic responses personally; get annoyed or hurt, or read too much about your child's mood or emotion into it. There are a few techniques to try that should encourage your child to open up about their day.
In my role as a Peacemakers' Restorative Coordinator, I have a bank of questions I can ask a class that vary from low risk, requiring a one-word answer ("what's your favourite flavour of ice cream?") to something requiring a little more thought ("if you had a super power what would it be and why?") In each case, I make it clear that it's OK to not answer the question if they don't want to. As children realise they can choose to contribute or not, and learn that they will be listened to and have a responsibility to others, more children contribute, and confident and chatty children realise they need to share air-time with others.
As parents and carers wanting to engage with children on the journey home from school, we can change the questions we ask to be more specific and more interesting, and also structure them in a way that avoids the option of a "yes / no" response. Try one or two of these with your child:
- How was your morning/afternoon/break time/literacy lesson?
- What was your favourite thing about your morning/afternoon/break time/literacy lesson?
- What was your favourite part of school today?
- What are you looking forward to about tomorrow?
- What did you learn/do that made you smile today?
Building the relationship by going a bit deeper
Sometimes we don't believe the person asking a question is really that interested in our answer. So, as adults, we need to have a variety of questions to ask children in a meaningful way. This means putting away the phone, looking directly and giving them time to answer. It can also mean gently asking the same question a few times. Sensitively repeating a question can demonstrate our care for that person. Some older children prefer not to have face to face conversations so consider making the most of sitting side by side on a car journey.
Try throwing in slightly more though-provoking questions, like:
- What were you most interested in today?
- When were you most creative today?
- What do you know now that you didn't know this morning?
- What makes for a really great day at school?
Or affirming questions, such as:
- Who made you smile today?
- Who surprised you (in a good way) today?
- When did you surprise yourself today?
- How did someone show they cared today?
- How do your teachers show they care?
- How were you a good friend today?
You might get a great response straight away, but the important thing is not to give up on curiosity and affirming questions, which can take your child by surprise, make them think, and avoid conversations that are easily-anticipated questions that call for stock answers, where conversations can feel like a formality to both parent and child. After all, the more we are able to open up to each other, find out new things about each other, the stronger the relationships can become.