After school, your child hops into the car or walks in the house and you ask, "How was school today?" Maybe you get a full sentence, or instead the answer is "fine,” "good" … or just a grunt. Getting information out of a quiet child or sullen preteen may seem like it requires CIA-approved interrogation techniques, but you most likely just need to change up your questions.
Class and Homework
- Instead of: “How is science class?”
- Ask: “What did you learn in science class today?”
This more specific question is simple and unassuming, and the answer could be packed with information. Even if your child gives a nonchalant shrug and mutters, "I don't know," you can then try to figure out if he really doesn't know what's going on in science class (valuable information) or if he just doesn't feel like talking.
- Instead of: “Did you do your homework?”
- Ask: “What did your teacher assign for English class today?”
The standard question about homework that parents ask every day is rarely effective since it's a yes-or-no question. Instead, hear what the assignment was, then you can ask if your kid actually did it.
- Instead of: “Why are you doing so badly in social studies?”
- Ask: “Do you think social studies is too easy or too hard this year? Why?”
Jumping in to immediately find the reason your child is underperforming might put him on the defensive. Avoid awkward silences or harsh stares by easing into the difficult subject. Knowing whether a subject is too easy or too hard can let you know what your next steps should be to help him do better.
- Instead of: “What book are you reading?”
- Ask: “Tell me about that book you're reading. What's happened so far?”
When adults talk among themselves about books they are reading, they can usually expect to get more than the title, but your child may play by different rules. With a little prompting, though, you can bond over whether the story is interesting (or super boring) and assess your child’s reading comprehension skills.
Classmates & Teachers
- Instead of: “How was your day?”
- Ask: “What was your favorite part of the day?”
You could also ask if someone did something funny or if your child had any difficult tasks that day. Without being specific, your child may just say "fine" or "nothing," and bring the conversation to a halt.
- Instead of: “Is someone bullying you?”
- Ask: “What did you do during recess today?”
Kids aren’t likely to admit that they are being bullied. But asking about recess or lunchtime can give you some clues as to who your child hangs out with and if there are any changes in his social life. If he mentions playing with Bobby every day for a week, but the next week Bobby isn't mentioned at all, you might want to ask if they had a fight.
- Instead of: “Is your teacher nice?”
- Ask: “What do you like (or don't like) about your teacher?”
Your child's relationship with his teacher can really make or break the year. Kids will sometimes refuse to do homework or participate in class if there's constant tension in the classroom. This question will help you find out about any issues that you need to address.
- Instead of: “Are you ready for your math test tomorrow?”
- Ask: “What did you do to prepare for your math test?”
Studying isn't intuitive and most kids simply don't know how to do it. Sleeping on the textbook and learning by osmosis usually doesn't work. If your child mentions ineffective tactics, you might want to step in and help make some flashcards or do some practice questions.
- Instead of: “Why did you do so poorly on this test?”
- Ask: “What can we do differently next time so that you get a better grade?”
Most kids want to do well in school and whether they admit it or not, getting a poor grade can make them feel pretty crummy. While they absolutely share a great amount of the responsibility for doing well, making their success seem like a team effort can motivate them to try harder and to communicate with you.
- Instead of: “How did you do on that test you had today?”
- Ask: “I used to get really nervous before a big math test. Numbers still kind of make me nervous. How did you feel during your test today?”
Sometimes kids forget that the adults in their lives were once kids too. Remind your child that you were once in his shoes. If you have a funny story about a test gone wrong, share it! Come on, we've all been there. It may help your child open up about his own struggles.
As your child gets older, you may feel like you're trying to crack open a vault, and the combination keeps changing. Keep up with what's going on in your child's life by asking more specific and open-ended questions and listen to the answers. If you know who your child plays with and who is mortal enemy #1 this week, you'll go a long way in gaining "parent cred" in the long run. Even if he doesn't talk much, your child still wants to know that you're listening.