By Sarah Vander Schaaff
“How was your day?”
I am going to go out on a limb and guess that if you asked your children this question after their first or even fiftieth day of school, you got this answer:
End of story.
I confess that I spring the question on my two girls the moment I see them after school. Perhaps what I am really yearning for is a fulfillment of my own wishes.
I hope you had a day of intellectual discovery, meaningful exchanges with friends, and ate something more than cream cheese for lunch!
That’s a lot of unspoken pressure, and it’s no wonder they keep the lid on the discussion with the impenetrable and irreproachable “good.”
I have discovered two ways to hear more about their days, however, after years of repeating myself, and in good moments, I remember to do them.
The first strategy is challenging because it almost feels rude: I don’t ask. Instead I remind myself that they are in elementary school and what they really want from me is a snack.
It’s hard to expound on the glories of the day when you’re eating a cheese stick. So I let it be. Without prompting, if I wait, details spill out.
Three hours after coming home from her first day of school, while riding in the car, my oldest remembered that she’d won games in both Spanish and gym class. For a kid who is on the reserved side, and had been a bit on the outside of her peer group the year before, these small victories suggested good things for the year ahead, she felt.
While brushing her teeth before bed, my first grader mentioned she had, in fact, eaten cream cheese for lunch. There was a bagel attached to it, supposedly, as well.
This strategy of allowing the details of their days to flow out over time takes more patience, but it does something the after school interrogation does not. It allows them to reflect and process the day, and then decide what held significance.
As we are discovering with the recent stories about the problems students are having with college essays, either over-sharing for shocking effect, or being stumped by years or little self-reflection, this “settling” time is essential. It’s a process easily bypassed when we ask our children to summarize a seven hour school day with a question that they must, on some level, realize is linked to our own need to be reassured.
And that leads me to the other strategy, one I’ve acquired by watching my friends and neighbors who are also teachers, ask a child about his or her day in ways that provoke deeper exchanges.
They also convey their sincere interest in the child, the respect for the child as a leaner, and the confidence in the child’s ability to share a perspective on a topic.
I saw intelligent, well-rounded high school students struggle with this type of dialog when I was teaching public speaking. It’s a skill that takes practice. And that practice starts with these simple moments.
Just yesterday, one such teacher-neighbor greeted my first grader and asked her, “What is one thing you learned today that you never knew last year?”
It put my six-year old on the spot, but the smile on her face while she pondered the question was evidence that she liked the challenge.
And it reminded me that the nature of an answer often depends on the thought and intent behind the question.
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