If your experiences were anything like mine you would have had one or two of those painfully frustrating days when all you got was a grunt when you asked your child how their school day was. As a mother with two boys, I had my fair share of those grunts particularly in their teenage years. However the good news is that I learnt early enough that I could get more out of them if I improved the quality of my questions and especially if they were asked in a relaxed manner.
Let’s face it, we all lead very busy lives so we’re often looking for quick fixes and quick results however as with everything else in life, there is a direct correlation between what you invest in your child and the results you get. Thinking back, I wasn’t devoid of the questions to ask, I just sometimes had so much else to do that I wanted a speedy answer; and indeed I often got a speedy grunt! Somewhere along the line and thankfully before it was too late, I realised that even though my sons were already in secondary school, I still needed to spend as much quality time with them as I did when they were at primary level especially if I wanted to gain insight into what was going on in their lives. I recognised that if I were blind-sided, I would have no idea whether or not they were going off the rails and finding out too late could mean irreparable damage had been done.
I have shared below some tips from my approach at the time; these started from primary school level and although I almost made the mistake of scrapping them when my sons got to secondary school, I discovered soon enough that I needed to continue and I’m glad that I did.
As a family we sat down for dinner together as much as possible, particularly on school nights. I found that it is usually a good way to have a decent and relaxed conversation without your child feeling interrogated and clamming up. Although we all owned mobile phones, we didn’t have the unprecedented smart phone addiction that parents and children alike have today. That notwithstanding, mobile phones were not present at the dining table and if I would do this all over again, mobile phones will still be a no-no over dinner as it is a family-time conversation killer. We also did not have the television playing in the background, it was our time to hear each other and shut out every other distraction.
I often found it easier to begin with general topics and/or continue on from a previous conversation. For example if there had been something of note that happened at school the day, week or month before even though not necessarily directly connected to my son, I could start with asking what the latest news was.
One question I often asked was if the teacher had made any changes to the seating arrangements in the classroom. Teachers move pupils around for a variety of reasons so knowing that answer in isolation is only a part of the jigsaw puzzle. A move could be due to disruptive behaviour patterns or due to the teacher placing those with comparable ability together etc. Personally, I found that this gave me more insight into the dynamics of the classroom even if my own son had not been moved around. I must warn that it is difficult and could potentially be dangerous to second-guess the situation as you could jump to the wrong conclusions. If however you had been following the class story from your erstwhile dinner conversations, you may be able to draw up some reasonable assumptions which can later be tested/validated. For example, if it was your child whose seating position had been moved around then it would be a valid question to ask at the parents’ evening.
Getting to the Heart of the Matter
- You can start by asking: who in your class would you gladly switch seats with
- The follow on question to this is why
- Has anyone been moved to another seat in class today
- If the answer is yes, ask if your child knows why
- If the answer is no, ask if there have been any moves recently
- Even if your child has not been moved, ask if someone has been brought to sit next to him/her recently
- Ask if there is any one in the class everyone wants to sit next to or no one wants to sit next to; and why
Here are some other examples of questions you can start off with and build upon with further questions as illustrated above. The trick is to try as much as possible to ask open questions (not yes/no questions) to keep the conversation flowing:
- Which of your school lessons did you find most difficult to follow/most boring/easiest to follow etc today
- Tell me something you now understand today which you didn’t understand before
- Who did you spend the most time with in the playground today
- Is there something anyone in class did that made your teacher smile/frown today
- Which of the school rules did you find hard to keep to today
- Which of our values at home was difficult to follow whilst in school today
Those closest to me say I wear my heart on my sleeve; basically I don’t have a poker face. However, despite this limitation I somehow learnt to keep a straight face and not panic when I heard anything alarming during our conversations about the school day. A calm approach is quite important especially when dealing with teenagers else you could inadvertently lose their trust and once the communication channels are closed you will likely struggle to know what’s going on. That does not mean I did not express my views about things I disapproved of, in fact I did and strongly too however there is a time, place and manner in which those opinions and parental guidelines should be expressed in order to keep communication lines open.
There’s nothing quite like face-to-face conversation over a meal; your child’s body language and tone of voice tell you much more than his/her actual words. The rewards of spending quality time with your child whilst asking quality questions are therefore significant; this includes albeit not limited to the following:
- You get to know your child better and this includes knowing their heroes, motivations, aspirations, fears, threats, strengths, weaknesses, etc. You are therefore better equipped to guide and support them.
- You know who their friends are; this is vital as they are key influencers
- You don’t get as many surprises and will hopefully not be embarrassed when you attend the parents’ evening
- You get the opportunity to intervene early if something is going wrong so it is nipped in the bud and hopefully doesn’t become worse
You only get out what you put into anything and I have come to appreciate that this includes what you sow into your child’s life. When you ask the right open questions, you get even more answers than the scope of your original question. To achieve this you need to be prepared not just to ask but also to spend time listening attentively. If you aren’t already doing so, make a conscious effort to start creating space for quality time and quality conversations with your child from today. And for those already adept at doing so, my experience tells me you are on the right path so do not relent, keep at it and keep on coming back to this website to explore more ways to support your child.