There was nothing particularly fun for me about elementary, junior high, or high school. Quite frankly, I hated most of it. The sheer banality of the public school system made every day run together into a 13-year blur, punctuated only by the occasional crush and the less-occasional suspension for some adolescent wrong-doing or another, including several that I wasn't even responsible for. If school was "challenging," it was because it was tedious, monotonous, and run by bureaucrats.
That's how I answer the question, "how was school" decades after having graduated.
When I was a kid, however, my answer to the same question was always an exasperated "fine," much to the annoyance of my parents who probably would have like to have been reassured that their son was at least receiving some semblance of an education when during the hours of 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day.
An even worse answer for me to give was "boring." Then they automatically assumed the worst: that I was either putting forth no effort or that I wasn't being given enough work. I learned not to ever answer "boring."
The worst answer of all was, of course, "I don't know." We won't even start.
In fairness to my 5 to 18-year-old self, however, the question itself was as mundane as the answers I delivered. How was school? Didn't they go to school? Didn't they remember? It's easy to understand their curiosity, but in asking a question that feels as dulling as the day itself, their interrogations were bound to fail.
Don't let this happen to you. Here are questions other than "How was school?" for you to ask your kids that will actually open up communication (at least until they become surly teenagers). Ask these questions after they've had some time to wind down, decompress. Don't give them the third degree as soon as they drop their book bag.
Get them fed. Give them space. Then have a conversation.
1. What were the best and worst parts of your day?
It won't necessarily get past your child's privacy barriers — no one wants to relive a really bad day and kids often feel ashamed when they're bullied or made fun of — but at the very least, it's a question that provokes thought.
2. What did you do at recess?
Play, especially for younger children, is as important as anything taught in the classroom. The playground is where kids learn to socialize, start to figure out how to work out arguments without adult intervention, and burn off excess energy. Some kids spend all their recesses in the library. Others like team sports. Some play by themselves. Asking your kids what they did at recess will give you a glimpse at who their friends are, who their friends aren't, and the kind of person they're becoming.
3. What rules do you have to follow? Which rules do you think are most unfair?
For the most part, the rules that govern children at school make sense. Until they don't. Dress codes, for example, seldom make sense, invoking nebulous ideas like "distraction" or "disrupting the learning environment." But this question is less about the necessity of rules than it is about figuring out how your child understands them and how those rules are actually enforced, whether consistently or irregularly.
4. What's the most interesting thing you learned about today?
This is a better question than "what did you learn today," because it generalizes, rather than putting your kid on the spot and making them feel like they'll need to come up with a fact of some kind. By asking them what they learned about, you'll gain some insight into the subjects they like, the things that inspire them... in short, the things you should encourage them to pursue.
Of course, there's also the opposite of that question, too...
5. What's the most boring part of school? What would make it be more interesting?
6. What's your favorite class/subject?
There's always one class or one subject that makes the 13 year state-mandated sentence bearable, that makes you excited to learn. Finding a subject you love when you're a kid is one of the best feelings in the world: it opens up wonder and wonder always leads to the promise of possibilities. What lights the fire in your kid?
7. Who are your favorite teachers?
Constrained by bureaucracies large and small, teachers can only do so much to inspire, to show students how to find their own way. The very best teachers often run afoul of administrators — mine certainly did — in trying to help their students find their own path, pursue the things that make their hearts soar, hone their talents... and, yes, graduate on time. Find out who your child's favorite teachers are. They're out there shaping their future every single day.
8. What did you do today that you're most proud of?
It's important to praise the work they did and the effort that they put into it. Find out what they're most proud of.
Dr. Carol Dweck pioneered a decades-long study that showed that praising your child's hard work is far more conducive to learning and academic improvement than praising their intelligence. She summarizes the findings of her research as follows:
"....an overemphasis on intellect or talent—and the implication that such traits are innate and fixed—leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unmotivated to learn.
Teaching people to have a "growth mind-set," which encourages a focus on "process" rather than on intelligence or talent, produces high achievers in school and in life."
Celebrate the little victories with them, whether it's making a new friend, learning a new word, or finishing an assignment.
These are all questions meant to spark communication, rather than just elicit a frustrating one-word response. The relationships you have with your children are the most important ones you have: they'll be the foundation of the relationships your kids have. That's far too important a responsibility to leave to "how was school?"