Your chatty children leave for school in the morning and seven hours later they’ve morphed into monosyllabic-grunt buckets muttering, “Dunno… Can’t remember… Fine… Pasta.”
And as mum-of-two Jane MacDonald rightly comments: “When you don’t know what they get up to, the temptation is to fill in the gaps with your own imagination – they hate school, someone’s being mean to them, they have no friends and on it goes.”
So with parents everywhere in mind, we reveal how to entice your children into sharing the good times – and bad.
DO give children time to unwind
Your child will be tired to an almost catatonic level at school pick-up time, particularly when they are young. It’s perfectly normal for children in reception and even in Year 1 to throw the mother of all tantrums minutes after skipping out of the classroom – you’re their safe zone after an exhausting day. Bring an after-school snack for an energy boost – non-squishy bananas are the biz.
Give children a run in the park before you get home. They’ve been hemmed in all day by walls and instructions and need to cut loose, run around and lose those slumpy shoulders. They’ll be much more inclined to give you a glimpse of their school life once they’ve been fed and run.
DON’T ask ‘How was your day?’ – it’s too big and broad a question
Noel Janis-Norton, parenting educator and bestselling author of Calmer, Easier Happier Parenting, says: “These are the three questions that won’t elicit real answers from your children: ‘How was school?’ The answer will be ‘Fine’, and you’ll be none the wiser.
“‘Did you have fun at…?’ The answer is likely to be a monosyllabic yes or no, and the conversation will probably stall there.
“‘What did you do today?’ Put on the spot like that, they’ll say something banal like ‘I had pudding’.”
If you want a real conversation it’s much better, says Janis-Norton, to make a statement inviting a response, such as “It’s Tuesday today, you probably had maths” and then wait to see how your child responds.
DO know their school timetable, so you have specific prompts
If you know they went on a trip to the library today, Monday afternoons is swimming and Wednesday is netball, you’ve got an ‘in’ for an interesting chat.
DO invite a friend
Walking home one step behind your child and a school friend, or driving them home to a play date while listening to their chatter and giggles, can be a brilliant way to get a glimpse of their school life, from in-jokes to the foibles of the teacher.
DO tell them about your day
Children learn to share news and experiences by modelling their parents’ behaviour. So if you share funny anecdotes about your work mates, conjure a silly scene that happened to you or share small frustrations, you’re showing them that talking about your day can be a way of feeling closer to somebody and can be entertaining and interesting.
DO play talking games
Playing the ‘sad and glad game’ encourages younger children to talk about their day without feeling bombarded by questions. At the evening meal everyone in the family takes turns answering ‘I was glad today because’ and ‘I was sad today because’. You can extend it to ‘mad’ too – what made you cross. It’s a good way to open up chats with other family members agreeing or disagreeing or wanting to know more.
“Framing questions and conversations differently can mean they spill more information,” says Liat Hughes Joshi, author of Raising Children: the Primary Years (Everything Parents Need to Know – from Homework and Horrid Habits to Screentime and Sleepovers). “A friend of mine plays a game at dinnertime with her daughters and calls it ‘rose and thorn of the day’ and the parents join in too with their three roses and three thorns. Another idea is to offer a choice, rather than ask an open-ended question. So not ‘Who did you play with today?’ but ‘Did you do play with X or Y?’”
DON’T leave chats until bedtime
“Usually the worst time to talk is at bedtime,” advises Janis-Norton. “If a child is inclined to anxiety, once you turn off the light and leave their bedroom, they will be left all alone with their worries, stewing in the dark.”
DO give your child special one-to-one time
“This doesn’t mean special treats or hot chocolates in cafes, but doing something together every day, just the two of you. It could be as simple as preparing a meal together,” suggests Janis-Norton. These are the times when easy conversations occur.
DO use ‘reflective listening’
This is a way of re-framing questions into statements that invite a response and de-personalise conversations. “Instead of asking, ‘Are you worried about your exams?’ you could say something like ‘Lots of kids your age are worried about exams’,” suggests Janis-Norton. “This makes it easier for a child to reply.
“If a child says ‘Everybody hates me!’ your automatic response might be to say ‘Don’t be silly!’ but it would be more helpful to imagine what your child might be feeling, below the level of the words.
“You could say something like ‘Maybe you’re feeling left out’. We can’t solve all of our children’s problems, but we can help them to feel heard and understood. This often defuses uncomfortable emotions.”
DO be ready and available to listen
“When your child wants to speak, stop and listen to them,” says Linda Blair, clinical psychologist and author of The Happy Child: Everything You Need to Raise Enthusiastic, Confident Children. “Turn off the TV, unplug from the computer, look up and show that you are listening fully and that you value what they have to say.”