Everyone who ever met a kid and asked them, "How was your day?" knows about this struggle. The answers vary from one-word replies to a not-so-coherent pile of little anecdotes, a frown, or even complete silence. This may also apply to questions like, "How was the trip?" or "Did you have fun at the show?" The answer will likely be, "Fun," or "Okay," killing the conversation.
Parents, grandparents, or relatives trying to show real interest in the child may be left a bit frustrated to hear such a response. Why is it that every child, no matter their age, hates this question so much? Are they hiding something? Should I be worried? Why doesn't my question spark a real conversation, as it does with my adult friends? And most importantly, how do I get them to open up? How to reach out and have a meaningful conversation?
The importance of knowing how your child's day went goes beyond bonding. It can give clues about their performance at school, what subjects they find difficult, how they are doing socially, and whether or not they are being bullied. With high schoolers, asking about their day could protect them from shaming or peer pressure. So, by all means, it's an important question to ask and answer, no matter the child's age.
Let's begin by looking into the reason why a question like, "How was your day?" isn't very successful and learn the better alternatives.
Children often struggle with the shift from school to home
Think about it. They just left a space full of activity and stimulation, a place with many other children, sounds, smells, textures, and social intrigues. They learned a lot today, they followed a different set of rules and fulfilled the unique expectations they have at school or kindergarten.
They are probably excited, tired, and overwhelmed, all at once, just like you may be at the end of a long day of work. The only difference is in communication. Kids won't verbally tell us how fatigued they are because, chances are, they don't even notice it themselves.
What to do instead of bombarding kids with questions
Give them a few minutes to cool down and make the shift in "brain modes" from school to home. Of course, this doesn't mean complete silence. Greet your little ones like you always do, make sure they are full and not thirsty, and wait for them to open up. Once they do, actively listen.
Children don't recall their experiences the way adults do
This fact manifests itself in the anecdotal unrelated chain-of-events type of answer we discussed at the beginning. It usually happens to the younger ones, not high schoolers. They only remember the highest points of excitement or irregularities throughout the day, and they can't put them into context.
So, for example, when you ask your child about their day, they'll tell you they played with a red ball, leaving out the important context, e.g. how their best friend brought a new red ball today and everyone played together. As a result, you as a parent or grandparent will remain puzzled.
What to do instead of asking a general question
Help them navigate the scattered memories of the day. Ask specific questions that help them contextualize the answer. For instance: "What was the first period like?" or even more specifically, "Did you find anything difficult during the first period?", "What was your favorite part of lunch break?", "What was the funniest thing you heard today?", "Did anything scare you today?" Use these questions to gather information about the things you'd like to know. Instead of asking "Did everything go well on the test?" specify, "Were you unsure of any of your answers on the test today?"
Tell your children about your own day
Humans tend to mirror and reflect each other's energies. When you're around someone grumpy, some of their grumpiness will stick to you. When you're around content, calm, happy people, you'll feel yourself relaxing and matching their energy. Integrity is treated with integrity. Openness leads to more openness. Try telling your kids about your day first. Just make sure they're in the right headspace to listen.
Simplify the information as much as you can and use language your child will understand and be able to relate to. They will respond well to hearing the things that make you laugh or bores you. In turn, you can ask them about the things that bored them and made them laugh today. You can talk about the interesting people you met at work, the mistakes you made, and even the food you ate today.
If you're worried about bullying, here's what to do
If you suspect that your child isn't opening up about their experiences at school because they are being bullied or harassed in any other way, the specific questions rule applies here too. Here are the questions you should ask: What do you like to do with other kids? What don't you like so much? Who did you play with today? What was that like?
On this government website, there's a list of signs to look for that may indicate bullying. You'll also find more information and statistics about bullying there. We hope this helps you keep your children happy and safe!