September 14, 2016
“How was school today?”
If your house is like mine, the conversation will go something like this:
“What did you do?”
In reality, few days are entirely fine, and none are entirely empty. So how do we improve on this perennial flop of an exchange?
As adults we can often forget how stressful middle and high school can be. While some students are energized by school, most find their days taxing, even under the best conditions.
Adolescents may have fun at school with their friends, but they are also in close quarters with scores of peers they didn’t choose. The rough adult equivalent would be to spend nine months of the year in all-day meetings with 20 or more random age-mates — and be expected to bounce home and share enthusiastic updates.
Elementary has historically been more fun and less pressured than the later grades, but this is no longer true in many communities. We should bear that in mind on the days that our younger children seem worn down by school and when our teenagers seem altogether fed up with it.
Many kids, having brooked a demanding day, are ready to leave it in the rearview mirror. They may receive the greeting “How was school?” as we would a cheerful: “Describe all the tedious things you did today!”
In truth, “How was school?” is often short for, “I love you and miss you and would like to touch base.” Throwing the door wide open by inviting teenagers to talk about any part of the day may seem like we are meeting them more than halfway in our conversational efforts. But seeing it from the teenager’s perspective, our broad question may cover more ground than a weary teen can consider.
Posing more specific questions usually helps. Asking, “How is that group project going?” or “Did you guys do sprints again in practice?” can move things in the right direction, especially when our tone conveys that we have no agenda or angle to pursue.
Even better, drop your line of inquiry if your teenager puts a topic on the table. Should an adolescent say, “English was stupid today,” a warm “How come?” can keep the conversation going. At my practice, I am often charged with engaging fragile adolescents on delicate subjects. Asking, “How come?” with genuine curiosity and without judgment has long been my most reliable ally in the effort to help teenagers open up.
Sometimes “How was school?” gets a detailed answer, but not one the parent had in mind. Though teenagers will often share good or interesting news, they’re just as likely to respond with a complaint, or an entire rant. Having held it together throughout the day, they may be primed to blow off steam when we unwittingly invite them to do so.
When the griping begins, parents often step in with well-meaning suggestions. “Did you tell the office about your jammed locker?” or “Have you let your teacher know that you didn’t understand the assignment?” From here, the conversation almost invariably takes the same unhappy path: Parents try to convince the teenager of the wisdom of their guidance, and the teenager tries to convince the parents that they just don’t get it.
And the adolescent is often right. Teenagers, like adults, typically grouse to seek relief, not advice. If we can keep that in mind, asking “Do you want my help, or do you just need to vent?” lets us offer the kind of support our children are hoping for. Allowing teenagers to complain is not the same as endorsing their complaints. Healthy venting sessions usually let adolescents return to school (and adults return to work) less burdened the following day.
At the literal end of the day, most parents simply want to connect with their teenagers. More than it may seem on the surface, our adolescents often want to connect with us, too. To help make this happen, we might set aside our terms and consider meeting them on theirs.
Several months ago at a school I was visiting, I met with a group of ninth-grade students. As I often do, I asked them, “When I meet with your parents tonight, is there anything that you want me to pass along?” A hand shot up, followed by its owner, an earnest girl who stood to say, “Please tell them that when I complain about my school day, the only thing I want them to say back is, ‘Oh my God, that stinks.’ ” Her classmates nodded, and some even quietly applauded.