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5 Things Never to Ask Your Child Right After School

  1. How was school today?
  2. What do you have for homework?
  3. When are you going to do your homework?
  4. What did you get on the test?
  5. What did you learn today?

You want to interact and make a connection as soon as your kids get home. Your kids do too, but not in the way you might think. You’ve missed them, want to know what they did in your absence, how they got along, or if they had any problems. But to your kids, questions can feel like an interrogation. They have just spent a long hard day trying to meet school expectations, such as listening to teachers, following directions, doing things they don’t necessarily want to do, coping as best they can, and hopefully working hard and learning. They need a break. They need to know, here is the place where I am completely accepted and loved. They need to chill.

Each of these 5 questions is filled with an expectation.

1. How was school today?

What if school was terrible? Your child may or may not want to tell you because he has a picture of exactly how you will react. Does he want to tell you the truth and have you get upset or worried and immediately ask more questions? Or does he want to make you happy so you won’t do the above. Even if it all went well, he probably doesn’t want to go through the details of the day—yet.

Safest answer: “Fine.”

2. What do you have for homework?

Homework is the last thing she wants to think about right now. Going through her head with this question is, Do you expect me to work all the time? Give me a break and get off my back. Your child has many more important things on her mind once she is out of school and probably none of them have to do with homework.

Safest answer: “I don’t have any.”

3. When are you going to do your homework?

Your child hears that all you care about is homework and grades. Is that true? Make sure you don’t have to police your child’s homework time. Establish ground rules about homework at the beginning of each year. With your guidance, allow your child to determine the best time and place to do homework. Keep it as consistent as possible, be interested and close at hand but assume he will do it himself. Let him know when you’re available and when not if help is needed.

Safest answer: “Later.”

4. What did you get on the test?

Asking about grades on tests sends the message to your child that your approval comes in grades as well. If your child did well, she will be thrilled to tell you without the question. If she did poorly, what does she expect your response to be? Will she get grounded, a privilege removed, extra homework time piled on?

Safest answer: “We didn’t get it back.”

5. What did you learn today?

Talking about what your child is learning is a subject worthy of discussion—at a later time. Do be involved in your child’s learning, let him know you care and are interested in what he’s doing in school, learn along with him, but save the talk until he brings it up or until it is a logical discussion during homework time.

Safest answer: “Nothing.”

When your kids get off the bus, climb in the car, or come through the door, welcome them back home. A big smile, a hug, a touch, and an “I’m so glad to see you” or “Hello, my darling” will give your kids the grounding that home provides with no expectations. Your unconditional happiness in greeting them will create the stress-free, safe haven they need to refuel and relax…and will set up the way the rest of the day goes.

A happy greeting can wipe clean any negative interactions left over from a morning conflict or difficulties at school. Your kids will know they’re home and can chill. There is plenty of time later for what you want to know about their day. Be patient and meet your children where they are at the end of a long school day.

It’s a problem for parents from preschool through college. We ask a question, like “What happened at school today?” and get nothing back.

Seriously. The answer is often “Nothing.”

Sometimes it’s a shrug. Sometimes it’s “I can’t remember.” But the result is the same.

We know this isn’t true. Nothing didn’t happen.  We’re just trying to make a connection, we’re not trying to pry. So why don’t children tell us how their day went?

How can we get them to tell us more?

We can ask better questions. Let’s face it, “What happened at school today?” or “How did you day go?” are questions that have lost their meaning. They’re nearly as empty of thought as saying “How do you do?” when introduced to someone new. We don’t really expect a report on a new acquaintance’s health. We’re not really asking how do you do? We’re just making small talk.

Asking a child – or anyone, really – “How was your day?” is just small talk. If it’s not meant as small talk we have to change the question.

So here are some fresh questions to try.

You get the idea.

Notice that none of these questions can be answered with just “yes” or “no” or even a shrug. Notice that most of these questions are easy to answer or pleasant to consider. None of these ask what was the worst thing that happened or the most embarrassing moment today. Each of these is intended to remind a child of something fun.

And each is intended to not be the end of the conversation but the start of a conversation. When your child answers, ask something more or make a comment your child will appreciate. You can tell who you saw today or what your biggest surprise was. To keep a question from being just small talk, it has to be the beginning of even a short exchange.

Be open to what your child says. Be careful not to jump in with advice or a judgment. See how long you can keep the conversation going today. See if you can keep it going longer tomorrow.

If our kids aren’t talking to us, it’s up to us to make a change. Start by asking better questions.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

Your baby had nearly fully-developed hearing even in the last few months before birth. He was eavesdropping on your conversations even in the womb. Learning language is that important: the hardware to hear is ready to go from the first moments of life.

So why does it take nearly two years for your child really to start to talk? Is there any reason to pay attention to a baby’s language much before age two?

Actually, a lot happens for language development in the first few months of life. Babies hear what is spoken around them and their brains shape themselves to be receptive to only the speech sounds the babies hear. By about 10 months, babies who once could hear any speech sound of any language in the world have narrowed their focus to only the speech sounds of the language spoken at home.

Babies practice those speech sounds. They babble. They babble in what sound like sentences. They seem to be trying to communicate, long before they can actually speak.

Slowly, your baby refines his babbling to imitate the words you emphasize. By about 11 months, your child says his first word, even though your friends couldn’t quite hear it. More words quickly follow and pretty soon other people believe that your kid is talking.

And then, if you talk to your child, the “language explosion” takes over. By the time your child is five he will have learned over 5000 words and will be able to speak in full sentences, ask questions, talk about yesterday and tomorrow, and even lie once in a while. This happens pretty much by itself. Your child is pre-programmed to learn to talk. It just happens.

So if kids learn to talk pretty much on their own, what’s your role? Do parents matter?

Absolutely. In fact, you’re the most important part of the puzzle. Without you, your child would have had the potential to speak but never really got there. Those 5,000 words by age five? Those come from you.

But the 5,000 words don’t come as vocabulary lessons. Teaching a child to talk is not like cramming for the SAT. The 5,000 words come in everyday conversations together, talking about the weather and what you did today and what’s for dinner.

Your role is to model language. You talk with your child as if she were a friend. You ask about her day, talk about what clothes she wants to wear and so on. You ask questions and wait for the answers. When you talk to your child, you don’t just give orders. You don’t just speak in as few words as possible. You demonstrate how people talk. To learn language, children have to hearlanguage and they have to have practice speaking it. That’s what you’re there for.

So be extravagant. Use lots of words, use complicated sentences, say silly things. The more you use language with your child the smarter he will get. As long as you let your child talk too, more language from you means more language for him.

It’s easy to get impatient. You’re busy, you don’t have much time. If you wait for your kid to tell you something you’ll never get anywhere. But if you don’t wait, you’re kid will never get anywhere. You’ve got to slow down and take the time to talk. And to listen.

Think of something you learned that required some practice but is now automatic. Maybe you learned to drive a car or ride a bicycle or make pancakes. The first few tries were probably not all that successful. Even after you mastered the techniques, you had to be careful to remember all the steps. You had to think about it. You were slow.

But you learned. You got faster with practice. Now you hardly need to think. But if someone had taken over—because you were so slow—and done things for you, you would never have learned. You might even have felt that the job was too hard for you. It might’ve seemed easier just to let someone else do it.

You want your child to learn to talk, and not only that, you want your child to learn to talk well. You want him to be able to put his thoughts into words and to think new thoughts because he has the language to do that. And learning this takes practice. It takes time to master.

Speaking might be natural, but it still takes time and loving parents to get really good at it.