As a kid, I loathed hearing, “What did you do in school today?” It was particularly irksome because my mom was a teacher and she knew what I did all day: sit at my desk and learn stuff and try not to get caught passing notes. Discussions of school and homework (especially once I was in middle school) only served to drive a wedge between myself and my parents. They were adults, so of course they would side with the faculty and administration. Now that I’m a mom, I’ve come up with some alternative things to ask kids about school, because I want my fourth and first graders to know that I’m on their side. I want them to know without a shadow of a doubt that I care about how they feel when it comes to school, because school will be their lives for the next decade and a half.
There was only one time I distinctly remember my mom going to bat for me. As an English teacher herself, she agreed with me that my ninth grade English teacher had incorrectly taken points off my essay for starting a sentence with “Because.” It’s one thing to write a fragment starting with that word, but my sentence was a full one, with a cause and effect construction: “Because of [x], you get [y].” The reason why this incident sticks out in my mind is because it was one of the few times I really felt like my mom and I bonded over something school-related. Otherwise, it was all desperate pleas for information (her) and one-word responses spit out with a put-upon attitude (me).
I’m determined to foster better communication between me and my kids than the kind I tolerated with my parents. That means coming up with new questions that encourage them (trick them?) to open up to me. The more I hear, in their words, about their day, the better parent I can be and the better I can support them in their academic endeavors. During this first week of school, it’s been crucial to get a handle on how things have been going because I want to lay the groundwork down for them to succeed and, more importantly, be able to come to me for help and emotional support throughout their educational journey.
So here are some things I’ve come up with to ask my kids about their first week of school, and, so far, they’ve been working to bring us closer together:
"Know What I Loved About School?"
Asking this gives me a chance to share not the obvious stuff to love about school (playtime, hanging with friends, art), but the things that spoke to me as a kid, and that influenced my life now. I tell them how I loved writing stories in school, and now I have a writing career. I know it’s hard for my kids to see the point of school now and when they are young. It can feel tedious, like the thing they have to do while their parents are at work all day. So asking if they want to know about my experience with school is an opportunity for me to draw those correlations between education and being able to support yourself as an adult.
Of course, this is completely selfish of me since their financial independence means they’ll move out sooner rather than later and I can maybe have a clean house or at least a wiped-down toilet seat.
"Know What I Hated About School?"
This question really piques my kids’ interest. “Wow, Mom has something negative to say about school!” I share my own horror stories about the disgusting bathroom, or my underwear falling down in front of my class, or other kids making fun of me. One story, about me getting pulled out for talking (when I was definitely not talking) and made to stand against the wall during recess horrifies them (and hopefully motivates them to be well-behaved).
Was the classroom hot? Was the cafeteria loud? Did the hallway smell funny? Questions that jog their sense memory have a better chance of being answered because you’re not asking them to deliver from rote memorization of the events of their day. If something impressed their senses, they’ll probably be able to recall it, and if anything grossed them out, my kids love telling me about it in detail.
"Would You Like To Plan Your Lunches?"
My control freak daughter (who only eats hummus and pretzels for lunch) always takes me up on this. It paves the way for us to talk about what other kids bring to eat, what the school lunch was, and why she refuses to it even when it’s pizza. It also gives me a platform to repeat my speech about not packing junk food.
"Who Did You Eat Lunch With?"
This question is also a good way to find out if my kid is experiencing any concerning social issues at school. Learning is only part of the equation, in my opinion. School is where you learn to really be a member of society. You need to listen, to talk to people in respectful ways (even if you don’t agree with them), and to stick up for yourself when others fall short of these behaviors. Since lunchtime and recess are the times when my kids can talk freely in school, I focus a lot of my questions around those specific periods of the day. It reveals a lot, but mostly serves to reiterate what a terrible mom I am for never packing chips in their lunch boxes.
"Did Anything Weird Happen?"
Something weird always happens, and it’s refreshing to hear what my kids find fascinating at school because it’s usually some minor detail that has nothing to do with what they’re learning. I’m more successful at cultivating a dialogue between my children and me (with questions that prompt them to to recall a memorable moment), instead of asking them to try to remember something that didn’t leave a huge impression on them.
"Did You Use A New Bathroom?"
Basically anything about bathrooms is a great line of questioning, especially if you have a 6-year-old like mine, who’s a huge fan of toilet humor.
"Is The Homework Harder This Year?"
Teachers tend to go easy the first week (at least in the early education grades; can’t say that’s the case with my current fourth grader). My first grader won’t get homework assignments until the second full week of school. So when I ask my little guy if he finds first grade tough, as if it would take so much effort to slog through the work, he feels pretty good about himself that he’s finding it very manageable so far. I’ve noticed this tactic helps him build confidence, and when the work does intensify, or he struggles with some aspect of math or reading, he won’t be surprised that my expectation was for the work to be harder than last year. I don’t tell him how smart he is, or how easy first grade is. I want him to see the value of effort and focus. It will be that much more rewarding when he sees it pay off.
Of course, it took me time to learn this. My second child is reaping the benefits of any missteps I might have taken with my first kid (who, luckily, enjoys school).
"What Was The Most Boring Thing Today?"
It’s probably not cool that I indicate anything about school could be negative, but since my tween daughter loves to tell me how boring everything is, I’m just using the vocabulary as an entry point to conversation. The funny thing is, if I start agreeing with her and she doesn’t feel like I’m lecturing her about the necessity of school, she opens up more and it’s not like pulling teeth to learn how things are going for her when I’m not there.
"Hear Any Good Jokes?"
They usually just hear terrible jokes, but I’ll laugh at at them anyway. And if they’re grouchy and staying tightlipped, I’ll just tell them a joke and ask them to rate it, and then see if they one to top it. That doesn’t necessarily get us talking about school, but at least it gets us communicating.
"Is This School Year Going How You Thought It Would?"
When I asked my kids, before the school year started, what they hoped first and fourth grades would be like for them, I got nothing put shrugs and eye rolls. But after the first few days, I was really curious how they were gauging their new classes. Even if their responses to this question were shrugs again, at least they recognize that I care about how they feel. Going to school is their job. I don’t feel bad for them when they say they hate it, because having negative feelings is part of life. But I do give them permission to have those less than happy thoughts at times. Being in touch with their feelings might serve them greater than knowing long division at points later in their lives.