My first reaction was to treat them like hostile witnesses undergoing cross-examination. So I would interrogate them: “Who did you sit with at lunch? ” “What did you get on the spelling test?” “What are you working on in science?” But the answers to these specific questions did not tell me much more: “Ava.” “One wrong.” “Electrical currents.” I still couldn’t get them to tell me how the events unfolded, who were the players in the drama or — most importantly — how they felt about any of it.
A few years ago, I happened upon a great strategy to get my kids to open up to me about their days. One day, out of frustration, I just started asking them to tell me one thing about a wide range of subjects: Tell me one thing you ate today. Tell me one friend you played with today. The questions got sillier: tell me one kid who cried today. They loved it. It became an ongoing thing and the kids started to call it “the questions game.” My kids enjoy this game so much that they now beg me to play it, even when I would rather spend my dinner in peace than in thinking up more and more probing questions. The good news is, this game really gets the kids to reflect on the events of their days and I even get to hear about some of the events that they witnessed, as opposed to being
direct participants in — the rich texture of the school environment, if you will.
How to play the questions game is simple. Over dinner, or on the ride home from one of their many activities, I ask the kids questions that are less about the mechanics of their days and more about their own reactions to the events of the day. I ask the same question to both kids, even though due to their three and a half year age gap, they used to spend their days in different schools and even now still have very different rhythyms to their days. I listen to the answers. And then I do it again with a new question. It’s important to ask about good and bad things and to ask the kind of questions that kids can relate to. Thus, one of my questions is often: “Tell me one kid who got in trouble today.” It may not be very nice to ask my kids to relate a story of someone else getting in trouble, but kids never fail to notice when someone else gets busted for something. And the answer to that question can be very revealing about classroom dynamics (and about which teachers are short-tempered. PS It’s always the gym teacher.)
When I asked Zuzu why she likes the questions game so much, she said (not this succinctly) that it makes her think about her day in a different way. It also leads to some wonderful moments. Recently, I asked the kids, “Tell me one song you sang today.” Zuzu had had chorus that morning and soon was serenading the table with an old folk song about mountain climbing and showing us how her chorus teacher instructs them to put their hands on their faces in different ways to get their mouths to pronounce the vowels in the songs. I don’t know if I would have ever heard about that without the questions game.
So, if you are frustrated with what your kids tell you about their school days, give the questions game a try. I’m not promising that your kids won’t find it extremely hokey. We started this when my kids were 4 and 7, so they are used to it. I don’t know how an older kid would react if you spring it on him or her. But you never know! And you can always tailor the questions for your kids’ ages. (Ask your older kids: tell me how many texts you got today.) Moreover, not all of these questions are guaranteed winners. You just have to feel out your audience.
Here are some of the questions that I have had success with:
- Tell me one thing that happened in your day that surprised you.
- Tell me something you saw or heard that made you happy
- Tell me one thing you did outside today
- Tell me a book or story that you read or was read to you today
- Tell me something that happened today that made you angry
- Tell me a friend you played with today that would surprise me
- Tell me something silly or funny that happened today
- Tell me something serious that happened today
- Tell me one kid who got in trouble today
- Tell me one song you sang today
- Tell me something you noticed that someone else was wearing today
- Tell me a teacher besides your classroom teacher that you saw today
- Tell me something new you learned today from a teacher
- Tell me something new you learned today from a classmate
Do you have a strategy for getting your kids to open up about their days?