By Christine Carter
Greater Good Science Center Senior Fellow Christine Carter, Ph.D., is the author of the new book The Sweet Spot.
As the first day of school quickly approaches, parents are asking me how to get their kids to talk to them more about school. We parents want information! We feel that in exchange for our nurturance and worry and everything we did to get them ready for school, we should at least get to know what's happening there!
So how can you get more than a "fine" out of your kids when you ask them "How was school?" Drawing on techniques from some of the most brilliant people I know -- parenting expert Amy McCready, child and adolescent psychologist Shefali Tsabary, and Harvard-trained life coach Martha Beck -- I've pieced together the following plan.
Set aside 10 minutes a day for "special time."
What (or whether) kids choose to share with us has a lot to do with their personality, of course. But a factor that is more within our control is our connection with them -- specifically, how much they trust us with their innermost thoughts and feelings.
We can lay a foundation of trust and connection using what my kids call "special time." Every day for at least 10 minutes, I try to do something with each of my kids that they choose: We play a game, read together on the couch, walk the dog.
This may sound easy, but for me, it's not; in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, 10 or 20 minutes per kid can be hard to find. That may seem ridiculous to you -- I spend longer doing things that are much less important everyday -- but between homework and dinnertime and bedtime, adding a whole other activity can seem daunting.
Oh, and also there's the fact that often I don't actually want to do what the kids want to do. For example, one of my daughters reads dystopian and romance novels voraciously, and a favorite activity is to "fan girl" the authors. When I have one-on-one time with her, she wants to tell me in excruciating detail about what she is reading.
My instinct is to roll my eyes and not hang out with her while she writes a letter to John Greene. But when I manage to be present with her in all her fan-girl glory, not judging or rejecting her current passion, she feels more connected to me, and vice versa. She learns that she can trust me with her inner world.
Moreover, when I consistently give her this "special time," she feels secure in the knowledge that she is one of my highest priorities, and that she can count on me to be there for her. It is during this special time that she is most likely to open up and tell me about lunchtime dynamics, or how she is really feeling about her teachers.
Be honest about why you want to hear about school.
Why is it so important to you that you know what is happening at school? There are legitimate reasons to want to know, and reasons that push kids away.
Here's the thing: Our kids' lives are not our lives, and we are not entitled to emotional access to their inner or social worlds. No matter how beautiful or painful things might be for them, it is their journey, not ours. We are support along their journey, but we aren't heroes in their stories. They are the heroes. We might be desperately curious about what is happening with them, but their lives are still their lives, which they can choose to share -- or not.
A kid's primary goal in life is to achieve belonging and significance. (Read more about this in Amy McCready's fantastic new book, The Me, Me, Me Epidemic.) Actually, it is a human being's primary goal to achieve belonging and significance. This is one reason that we parents want all the gory details of our children's lives at school. We want to know that we belong in our children's lives, that our role is significant.
But when we use our children to generate our own sense of belonging and significance, kids can smell our neediness a million miles away. Parental insecurity and anxiety is a heavy burden for a child or a teen to bear, and most kids (people!) will avoid it like the plague. Our kids can only truly connect with us when we don't depend on them for our own sense of self or significance. This bears repeating: Our kids can't really connect with us when our own fulfillment, happiness, or identity depends on them or what they do.
We can, however, ask our kids about their day as a way to fulfill their need for connection, belonging, and significance. We can act as curious-but-neutral witnesses to the beautiful mess of their lives. Ultimately, as they grow to trust our motivations, we become a place where our children can share even their most vulnerable feelings without also fearing how we will react.
Ask them about the worst part of their day.
Watch for the time and place when your child feels safe and has the energy to reveal him or herself to you. Hint: It probably isn't when they, or you, walk in the door after school or work. Most kids need time to rest and make the transition from school to home. And most kids don't want an audience of siblings, or the carpool.
When everyone is ready (perhaps while you are having special time, or at bedtime), ask them about the part of their day that was least satisfying. I might say something like, "What was the most stressful part of the first day of school?" Or "Was there a time today when you felt nervous or anxious or afraid?" (This is a coaching technique I learned from Martha Beck's coach training program.)
We ask kids this not because we want the dirt or the gossip or because we delight in playground or high school drama. Do not ask this question until you are ready and able to stay neutral and unemotional. Don't ask this if you are inclined to jump in and solve all their problems for them.
Ask only when you are able to accept their uncomfortable emotions. Acceptance means that you hear what is going on without asking why they feel the way they do, without offering a judgement about anyone or anything they are describing to you.
Ask only when you are able to label and validate their emotions, when you are able to neutrally help them understand what exactly they are feeling, and where in their body that feeling lives.
Why ask about the negative rather than the positive? Because, as Dr. Tsabary writes in Out of Control,
Inability to sit in the pain of life, whether that of our child or ourselves, shortchanges us, since only to the degree we can be with pain are we also able to experience the unbridled joy of life. In other words, it's our ability to experience the burning sting of our pain, without assuaging it, that empowers us to receive joy in all its magnificence.
We want kids to learn that all feelings, even the uncomfortable ones, are okay. Eventually, we can help kids understand how their emotions often drive their behavior -- and that while all emotions are okay, all behavior is not equally effective in helping them reach their goals.
So why, in the end, do ask them how their day was?
Because we want to be an unconditionally loving place in our kids' lives, where they will always be able to touch their own significance and feel their own belonging. We want to be the place where they can unburden themselves from life's difficulties -- so that, ultimately, they are able to receive life's beauty, in all its magnificence.