“How was your day, buddy?” I asked my second grader after his first day of school. “Thumbs up, down, or something in between?” I prompted.
He put his thumb sideways and kept walking without a word. This kind of ambiguity in a normal year is challenging for us parents. During another COVID year of schooling? Even harder. I managed to respond with a simple, “That makes sense,” and worked hard not to ask one hundred follow up questions. I spent the walk home contemplating the infinite scenarios that could produce a sideways thumb– sideways because the pizza had too much sauce at lunchtime? Sideways because you had no friends and hated your mask and have lost your love of learning forever?
It turned out to be none of the above. After going to the bathroom at home he emerged with a significant revision, “I just had to go to the bathroom during pick-up. My day was great!” Thumbs up.
Talking to kids about school
In many ways, I should be grateful for even a questionably inaccurate thumb signal. Some kids surely love to process their experiences and feelings about school and are eager to unload logistical and emotional details alike. Many more are reluctant to share any details at all.
When faced with single-syllabic grunts or silence, it can be tempting to respond in one of two extreme ways: the Smother or the Aloof. Unfortunately both backfire.
In our panic about not knowing-it-all, it is easy to become overbearing. The Smother sounds like this.“TELL ME EVERYTHING.” Then it escalates because the less they share the more we probe.
On the other hand, annoyed or disoriented by being shut out, it is easy to adopt The Aloof approach. This is what that sounds like: “You don’t want to talk to me? FINE. I’LL STOP ASKING.” In other words, the less they share the less we probe.
Neither of these works very well. Instead, big transitions invite us to get creative, curious, and patient as our kids work out what they are feeling and learn how to put names to those emotions. Here are some things to keep in mind as we talk to our kids about school this year.
We don’t need to know everything.
Let’s make sure we are clear about a reasonable goal. While we might like to know the details of their day, that isn’t really the point. The goal during an emotional transition like back-to-school is that we normalize a range of feelings and help our kids practice naming and regulating their emotions as their circle of independence expands. For example, we might be curious about whom they sat with at lunch (and revel in the details when we get them!). But making sure they know they can name and share how they feel about things like friendships, conflict, and belonging are far more important in the long run. This takes time, practice, and patience.
As kids get older and enter adolescence, it’s also helpful to remember that it is their developmental job to pull away from us. This means that some teens start shutting us out more often and that they may choose to share more with their peers instead. This doesn’t mean that we let go of communication and connection, but it does mean that we need to adjust our expectations.
Sometimes, a “fine” is just fine! Sometimes not.
It is possible that a kid who consistently reports that school is, “Fine!” and happily moves on to the next activity really is feeling fine! If we observe that our kid is acting fairly resilient and happy then we can likely take their word for it. In this case, it doesn’t serve anyone to act as an emotional detective, launching in-depth investigations into every nuance of “fine.”
That said, persistent “fines” coupled with persistent behaviors or emotions that clearly indicate “not fine” might deserve more attention. Get to know the many faces of stress and remember that kids’ stress often lives in the body before the brain. There are plenty of ways that kids communicate that they are struggling even if they can’t articulate it clearly. Normalize talking about mental health and wellbeing before they have to bring it up.
Not getting much? Be patient and get creative.
We’ve already covered that kids who are shutting us out and appear to be struggling don’t benefit much from The Smother or The Aloof. Instead, this is a good time to be patient and get creative with connection:
- Don’t skip warm up questions. While you might want to immediately dig into questions like, “How are you processing the return-to-school amidst a global pandemic after a year of observing massive social change in our communities???”…. It is easier to answer questions like, “What did you have for lunch today?” Consider starting with questions that don’t result in just “yes or no” answers but also don’t demand emotional depth right away.
- Paying attention to timing. Just because YOU want to talk about school early in the morning or right when they get home, doesn’t mean your kid is in a place to do so. Consider waiting until after a snack (or a bathroom break!) with younger kids or staying up a bit later with your teen.
- Create rituals. Consistent family rituals can help kids anticipate when they might be asked to share how they are doing and help them practice doing so. For example, “Highs and Lows,” “Roses, Buds, and Thorns,” or a gratitude circle during dinner can be a fun way to gain little windows into each other’s days on a regular basis. Avoid forcing a specific way of responding, keep it light, and go with the flow even when the ritual seems to fall apart. These predictable routines are powerful containers for connection that our kids can step into if and when they need them.
- Bring back “parallel play.” Often our attempts at conversation make our kids feel “put on the spot” which can shut down communication. Conversation often flows more freely when we are engaged in doing something together. Consider talking while driving, taking a walk, shooting hoops, gaming, or playing. Even just putting yourself in your child or teen’s orbit by reading close to where they do homework or watching videos side-by-side can create opportunities for conversation.
- Engage their observations. Sometimes it is easier for kids to talk about their peers or the general scene at school than to share details about their own day. You might ask, “How are your friends liking middle school so far?” or, “Have you noticed any other kids who are new to school like you are this year?”
- Use media. Whether you are texting your teen or using a show to generate conversation, use media to make connections. You might ask, “This show reminds me how lunchtime can be overwhelming if you don’t know where to sit. What’s it like at your school?” You might ask your teen over text, “Week one is done! Any gifs to describe your first week back?”
Want them to keep sharing? Respond with care.
When our kids come home with a giant thumbs up about their experiences at school, it is easy to sit alongside them with these feelings. What relief! The shared joy!
But if we want our kids to be able to share a range of emotions, we also need to be able to sit alongside their anger, frustration, worry, sadness, or overwhelm. This is easier said than done. When our kids are in pain, it is tempting to launch into problem-solving, lecturing, or heavy reassurance mode. The desire to take away their pain is understandable and we certainly don’t want to wallow in their concerns. But let’s do our best to resist these impulses, at least at first.
The reality is that they are learning more than just math and science and lunch menus while they are at school. They are learning how to make independent choices, build and repair friendships, grapple with uncertainty, and participate in community.
Our job isn’t always to “fix” what they encounter as they grow. Instead, our job is to help them acknowledge and name the range of feelings they experience and to make sure they know that they aren’t alone as they grapple with them. Problem solving and action planning play a role. But when we are lucky enough to get real answers to our questions about school, let’s take a breath first and do our best to respond with, “Thank you for sharing. I’m right here with you.”