I could buy Norway if I had a dollar for every time I sat down at dinner and mindlessly asked, “How was school?” only to hear “good” or “fine.” Stimulating four word conversation.
The older the student the harder it is to squeeze any meaningful info from them about what happens between 8 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Developmental psychologists say that’s as it should be. Elementary age children love having their parent(s) volunteer in their classroom. It’s a secondary students worst nightmare.
I know adolescents need some distance to become autonomous, independent peeps, but I still love the challenge of getting them to talk about their school day. Odds are I’ll never get the chance to interrogate prisoners of war. Here is some of what I’ve learned over the years.
The front “how was school” door is permanently locked. Tip-toe around to the side door and get way more specific. “What happened in Spanish today?” How did you do on your Math test?” What was Schaeffer up to today?” “What are you studying in history?” “Get your English paper back?” “Any interesting chemistry labs lately?” “What was the last film you saw?” “Anyone talk about Glee at lunch today?” “Who is going on the retreat this weekend?” “How’s Kaitlyn doing?” Is Noelle playing tennis this year?”
Notice that even those questions are of uneven quality. Ask my sixteen year old, “What happened in Spanish today?” and she’ll respond, “Nuthin’ really.” “How’s Kaitlyn doing?”? Rest assured, Kaitlyn is almost always “fine”. Instead, ask “what,” “if,” and “why” questions like these: What’s your favorite class these days? Why? If you only had to go to two classes which ones would you choose? Why? Whose your best teacher? Why? If you had to teach one of your subjects which one would you choose? Why? If you were the principal for the day, what’s one thing you’d change about your school? Why?
You can only ask specific questions if you’re engaged. If you’re on parenting auto pilot, forget the front, side, and back doors, no point really in even approaching the house. If you don’t know your child’s schedule, the names of their teachers, the names of the friends they eat lunch with, learn that stuff before going to sleep tonight.
There are exceptions to every rule. When inquiring about drinking and drugs, it’s often better to stay general because they won’t want to out any acquaintances or friends getting hammered. So I’ve found questions like “Much experimenting with marijuana going on?” or “Anyone you know get drunk lately?” yield more info than any “friend specific” drinking and drug-related ones.
At times the dinner table can be a conversation black hole. It’s the ultimate front door. Again, think side-door, back door, even windows. For example, I remember a few times, a decade or so ago, when Nineteen would ride her bike through the neighborhood while I ran. It was great, without realizing it probably, she talked continuously. Just now, Sixteen took the labradude for a pre-dinner walk. I should have joined her. Something about fresh air. Guaranteed I would have learned a lot more than I will at the dinner table.
Adolescents are living, breathing roller coasters, up one moment, down the next. Don’t press things when they don’t feel like talking. Give them a break and yourself. File away those brilliant, specific questions for later.
You don’t have to get any of these suggestions just right. Not even close. Your trying conveys care. Children peppered with questions often feign irritation, but deep down they always prefer being annoyed to being ignored.