How many of us want to learn more about our child’s day? How many us get very little in response when we ask them? I see a lot of hands, including mine, raised up high.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. For years parents have been trying to pry information out of their children, only to get the same lifeless responses. Well, I think I have just now figured out how to solve this problem.
No more questions!
Instead, I think we simply need to make the following statement:
“Tell me a story about your day.”
When our children are young we ask them questions such as, “What did you make at school today?” We are conditioned to ask this question because the projects they come home with are so adorable. We hang them on our refrigerators and we display them in our offices. They bring us joy because they help us to feel as if we have experienced a little piece of our child’s day. In reality though, these “cute” projects really don’ tell us anything at all about how their day went or what was important to them.
But what if we started to ask our little ones to tell us a story about how their day went? We may need to make sure we are comfortably positioned when we ask this question because we may be in for long ride. And that’s okay, because at least we will be getting a glimpse into our child’s world.
Malcolm Gladwell points out in The Tipping Point that our children are capable of telling stories as early as two years old. In his book, Gladwell cites a study done in the 1980’s called “Narratives from the Crib” that recorded a two-year old girl’s conversations with herself as she put herself to sleep each night. Gladwell pointed out that
She was making up stories, narratives, that explained and organized the things that happened to her. Sometimes these stories were what linguists call temporal narratives. She would create a story to try to integrate events, actions, and feelings into one structure—a process that is a critical part of a child’s developments. (Gladwell, p.119-120)
Having our children tell us stories about their day will help them to realize that there is meaning in moments and emotions and not just things. If we can help them to build and value this skill when they are young, imagine the power we can harness as they grow older.
As our children begin to mature we start to ask them questions such as, “How did your day go?” Oftentimes the answer we get is a one word emotional response fueled by the worst event that happened to them on that particular day. Either their day “sucked” or it was “awful”. And while we do care that they feel their day didn’t go well, we want more.
But we won’t get more unless we give them an opening. This is an age where our children aren’t able to explain why they feel the way they do. They just do! Hormones are pumping through their body like never before and they are confused but don’t really know it. So when we ask them how their went and they tell us that it sucked they aren’t being rude and they aren’t being dismissive. To them it did suck! We can’t brush it off as kids being kids and we can’t leave it at that.
This is why we need to ask them to tell us a story about their day. It will take time for them to build the courage to share with us, but it will come. More than anything our kids need us to listen without us immediately giving advice. That can come later. This is the time in which we are building the foundation of trust for what is to come later.
In Wisdom of Our Fathers Tim Russert has compiled a wonderful collection of personal stories highlighting important moments shared by sons and daughters with their fathers who have since passed. One in particular stands out to me, as it movingly illustrates the value of children and parents sharing their day’s with each other. Beth Hackett writes of her dad Roger Hackett:
Dad’s special time for me was morning coffee. He would get up at 4 A.M., start the coffee brewing and get ready for work. When the pot was ready, he would come into my room and wake me up. I would sit at the kitchen table as he poured two cups of coffee. His was always black. Mine was barely brown, full of milk and sugar, sweet to the taste. Dad would tell me about his day and ask about mine. When the cups were empty, he would tuck me back into bed and kiss me goodnight before heading out to work. It was our special time together, and we never missed. (Russert, p. 22-23)
When our children begin high school we start to realize that they are on the threshold of something big. While their report cards were important in elementary and middle school, now their grades may determine their future. Or at least we are convinced that they will. So we start to ask them questions like, “How did you do?”
While we have good intentions, this question has no potential. It will not tell us anything about how their day went. Furthermore, it sends the message to our children that the value of their day can be measured by a number. This can’t possibly be the message we want to send to our children.
But if we ask them to tell us a story about their day we just might find that they have been waiting for us to ask them. By this age we have hopefully begun to get a sense of what really matters to them. We can start to see their future and we know that it is a future in which we will not be right by their side.
Now is the time to really listen. Now is the time when we can step in and gently give advice. We can do this because we have been building this relationship over the past fifteen years. We have been listening to their stories for quite some time now. And while we don’t always know who the main characters are going to be, we usually have a good idea of how the story is going to end.
She would often stay up with him long after her brother and mom had gone to bed. The tv was on but they weren’t really paying attention to what was on because they were paying attention to each other. Each other’s stories. Some were happy. Some were sad and some just in between. And each night they would turn the tv off and walk upstairs, all the while still sharing stories. It was during these last few moments of the day that he thought about the fact that she would be going off to college soon. But he wasn’t worried anymore. Because he knew she would always tell him a story about her day. And that made him feel good.
Last night before going to bed I asked my daughter to tell me a story about her day. She smiled as she told it. She laughed as she told it. But most important to me was that she told it. She didn’t show me a craft. She didn’t tell me it was awful and she didn’t give me a score.
She told me a story about her day, and for the first time in a while I felt like I was there.