Today we are lucky to be joined by Cindy Marten, Superintendent of San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD). Having championed literacy at every level from classroom teacher to literacy specialist, principal, and finally, district leader, Marten brings her wealth of knowledge to bear on an important, but often frustrating question: how do we get kids to talk about their day at school?
The art of asking our children the right questions and engaging in active listening when they respond is worth exploring, practicing, and refining.
Our children want to know that we see them, we understand them, and we love them—and the best way to accomplish all three is by asking our children questions that prompt real conversation and listening heart and soul to their answers. Then, even with life’s inevitable daily distractions, with only a little effort and a strong commitment, it is possible to have meaningful family conversations every day.
Parents often ruefully remark that when they ask their child after school, “How was your day?” the typical, dreaded answer is, “Fine”—and all hopes for a rich, invigorating conversation about the child’s engagement with school and learning vanish.
There are two reasons for the dreaded “fine” answer.
- We are not asking the right questions.
- Our children are very perceptive, more than we may like to admit. They know when we are really listening and when we are only half listening.
Asking the right questions
After 27 years of teaching and being with children in school settings, I’ve learned to ask questions that spark a real conversation.
Here are the top ten best questions to ask that will get you past the “fine” answer:
- Who did you sit with at lunch today? How did you decide who you were going to sit with?
- Have you noticed any new kids in your class or your school this year? Who sits with them?
- Who do you sit close to in class?
- What book did your class read today?
- Who are some of the other adults you know in your school besides your teacher and what do they do?
- What changes have you noticed at school this year?
- What do you think is going to be the best part of your day each day?
- What parts of your day are you most worried about?
- What are you most looking forward to this year?
- How is this year different from other years?
After you ask any of these questions you can follow-up with “Why?” or “Say more about that."
These questions are sure to get the conversation started! And, then, as you listen intently to your child’s answers, you will know what to say next to prompt additional talk based on what emerges from these questions.
Be ready to really listen
Warning! Do not ask these questions unless you are really ready to listen to the answers, whatever they may be. Turn off your phone and devices and put them away or put them face down—anything that symbolically shows your children that you are fully present with your whole and complete self to listen.
Giving your children the gift of listening wholly and completely is the most precious of gifts you have to give. And I don’t mean practice active listening only when you have time. I mean do it every single day. I promise the results will astound you.
The Chinese character for the verb “to listen” combines several characters that reveal the deeper meaning of what it means to listen to one another. When we listen with not only our ears, but also with our eyes, our full mind and our hearts, we create and hold a space for our children to talk to us. Practice this art of listening.
Do it often—make it a ritual
Asking the right questions is the first step; active listening is the second, and doing it every day is the secret sauce.
Even if you nail the open-ended questions and make the time to be fully present, if you only do this once a week you are sending a message that you care about your children on some days, when you have time.
I don’t say this to make you feel guilty. I get it. We have very busy lives and schedules and some days it’s not possible to get into this kind of dialogue. I am just suggesting that authentic conversation with your child every day should be the rule, not the exception. On the days when you have missed it and you are tucking your child into bed or saying goodnight and you both realize that the day has come to an end you didn’t have time for your special talk, acknowledge and name it.
Simply telling your child that you missed your conversation and can’t wait to have it tomorrow sends the message that it matters—because, most importantly, you love your child.
A slightly different version of this post originally appeared on the San Diego Unified School District website. You can find it here.
Image via Cindy Marten