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How to get your Teen Talking

    Please don’t ask, “How was School Today?”

    “How was school today?” Right or wrong, what we teens hear is: “What did you learn today? Did you get good grades? What is your latest test score.” The New York Times has it right; when I hear it, I bristle all over. To keep the conversation flowing, we want to avoid things that make people defensive or are conversation killers.

    Here are a few examples:

    • Dad comes home on mom’s day off and asks, “What did you do all day?” Maybe dad was asking, “Did you have fun today?” but is that what you heard?
    • Mom wakes up Saturday morning and asks, “So, what’s the plan?” Maybe she was asking, “If you are busy, I can run out and get you lunch,” but is that what you heard?

    other Conversation Killers

    These are what I call Conversation Killers. There are many conversation killers; in this case, the “killer” is tied to the emotions linked to the question. What was heard versus what was actually asked? For many teens, “How was school today” is tied to expectations, previous arguments, and a list of things they need to work on. Whatever the emotion killing the conversation with your teen, it isn’t helping you find out what’s going on.

    If what you meant to ask is, “do you have homework tonight?” Another great conversation killer and is not the question a hungry teen wants to hear while getting into the car after a 7-hour day. Most likely, they are aware their day isn’t over. If you need to know the answer, great. Feed them and then ask. If instead, you were hoping to have a friendly chat with your child after not seeing them all day, I have a few suggestions.

    As a sideline, “Did you have fun at school today?” Sounds better, but it really is just as bad. I do not think you would ask someone, “did you have fun at the office today?”

    School can be fun. I am not saying it is never fun, but it is also work. We are working on our education, we are working on our social skills, we are working on our concentration and memory, and we are working on our study skills. We are writing, standing up and presenting, taking tests, and researching. We are surrounded by people who are also learning how to improve their social interactions. We are kids, and school is not always fun. 

    But it works for Adults

    I watch my mom and dad kiss every evening and then ask the question, “How was your day, dear.” It is not a conversation killer for my parents. They smile and start talking. So, I do understand that parents don’t remember how awful that question can be. I am not placing blame or lecturing parents. I am here to offer some alternatives to get your kid talking when they get into your car right after school.

    Make this a special connection time

    One last tip before I give you ideas on how to query the data you want. One reason teens don’t want to tell parents or teachers what is going on is they don’t always want advice. If we did poorly on a test, we know we need to study more; if a teacher was rude, we know we need to find out why; if a friend is being a butt head, we know we need to stick up for ourselves.

    At that moment, tired and hungry, we want to vent, and we want to vent to someone we trust. We can’t generally vent at school. We want someone who will not tell our friends’ parents, not call the teachers, not tell us what we should do, and not pile more onto our plate. We just want to vent. Later, after we vent and after we have eaten, we will pull out the book, write an email and call the friend. If your advice is about a persistent problem, set aside some time to talk to your child or your student about the issue. But if this is your connecting time, table the discussion, “oof, let’s talk about that one later, but I understand you are frustrated right now,” and continue to connect.

    One of the ideas we talk about in Leading with Curiosity is to check to see what the people in the conversation need. That is a respectful way to treat your teen as well. “Do you need to vent, or are you looking for advice?”

    Questions to Find Out “How was school today?”

    Since I started researching for what eventually became The Conversation Game, my mom has been a sounding board for me. She has heard this research and listened to my communication journey. In these two years, she has improved her after-school talk. Unfortunately, my sister taught her the expression, “Spill the tea,” which has become my mom’s new after-school opener. It makes me laugh because it is so inappropriate, and she says it all wrong. However, it is a silly thing between her and me, and I can think of something funny that happened to tell her. She and I laugh, and more importantly, our conversation begins. If you can find a ridiculous expression to help your teen get out of the school funk and into the habit of continuing a conversation, that is great. While you are practicing – emulate the five conversation skills you are hoping to give your child:

    Connect with C-A-B-L-E

    • C- lead with CURIOSITY
    • B – BODY language
    • L – active LISTENING
    • E – EYE contact

    As you emulate these skills, your child will pick up your example and start emulating you.  Click here to find out more.

    Continuing the conversation

    Another great opener is a continuation of the conversation you had yesterday. No, not the one about grades, and not the one about loading the dishwasher. If you want your child to open up, start by asking about the positive. For instance, ask for the conclusion if I told you some “tea” yesterday. If I told you Mr. Smith was out, follow up and ask if he was back in school. If I played basketball at lunch, ask me if we had a follow-up game today. Knowing that in our parents’ crazy busy lives, they have enough time to be interested in my friends and I is reassuring.

    Eight more Conversation Starters

    If you are just getting started and you don’t have a silly opener or a story from yesterday, here are eight other great options: 

    1. What did they serve for lunch today? (Was it gross is a good follow-up, the average school lunch is under $2.74, so yes, it is going to be gross sometimes)
    2. Tell me about something weird that happened today. (That’s crazy, what did you do?)
    3. How many teachers were out? (Hmmm, where do we think they all went?)
    4. Any games before/after school/during recess (who else played)
    5. Was so and so at school? (How are they doing?)
    6. Who was the scariest/funniest teacher today? (Then what happened)
    7. Roses, thorns/Bubble up, bubble down (Always a good starter)
    8. Anything thing interesting in the morning announcements? 

    I hope this helps you start practicing conversations at home while learning about your child’s day. Have fun, and drop me a line if you have other after-school conversation starters that work in your home!