Talking With Kids About School

August 28, 2018

Why is it so hard to talk about school? Parents often get exasperated with kids’ monosyllabic answers to their simple questions. That one well-intentioned line, “How was school today?” has probably provoked more bad feelings between parents and kids than either party ever intended.

“‘How was school today?’ is a frustrating question for both parents and kids,” notes Michael Thompson, Ph.D., author of “The Pressured Child.” “Parents never get the answer they want and often don’t understand how difficult this question really is. Without meaning to, parents are asking for a summary but kids don’t summarize the way adults do. So most kids just say ‘fine’ or try to avoid the question entirely.” And then the problem escalates. “Many parents will repeat this question if they don’t get a good enough response because they don’t know how else to ask it,” adds Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., author of “Playful Parenting.”

Fortunately, some simple strategies can get kids and parents talking and listening. “What was fun? What was the worst part of the day? Did your teacher explain that math homework? How did soccer go?”

However, communicating effectively about school goes deeper than just asking the right questions. “What are the goals of talking with kids about school and what is the role of the adult in these conversations?” asks Diane Levin, Ph.D., professor of education at Wheelock College. “More than just finding out how their day was, we want to help kids become problems solvers and independent learners. Good conversations help kids see we care about their lives, that we are there to support them, and to help them develop strategies for solving problems themselves.”

Try these strategies to get kids and parents talking about school and listening to each other in meaningful ways.

Talking Strategies

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.

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. 

See more strategies to get kids and parents talking about school and listening to each other in meaningful ways at: