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When Teenagers Cringe at the question ‘How Was School?’

Thursday, September 15, 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 constant flop of an exchange?

As adults we can often forget how stressful high school can be. While school energises some students, 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).

Primary school 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 completed another demanding day, are ready to leave it in the rear view mirror. They may receive the greeting “How was school?” as we would a cheerful: “Describe all the tedious things you did today!”

In truth our, “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:

  • “How is that group project going?” or
  • “Did you guys do sprint runs again in PE?”

This 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.

In counselling, when engaging fragile adolescents on delicate subjects, asking, “How come?” with genuine curiosity and without judgment is a 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 essay?”

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.

A counsellor was visiting a school and asked the teenagers, “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 that stinks.’ ” Her classmates nodded, and some even quietly applauded.

30 Questions a kid will answer at the end of a long school day:

  • What did you eat for lunch?
  • Did you catch anyone picking their nose?
  • What games did you play at break?
  • What was the funniest thing that happened today?
  • Did anyone do anything nice for you?
  • What was the nicest thing you did for someone else?
  • Who made you smile today?
  • Which one of your teachers would survive a zombie apocalypse? Why?
  • What new fact did you learn today?
  • Who brought the best food in their lunch today? What was it?
  • What challenged you today?
  • If school were a ride at the fair, which ride would it be? Why?
  • What would you rate your day on a scale of 1 to 10? Why?
  • If one of your classmates could be the teacher for the day who would you want it to be? Why?
  • If you had the chance to be the teacher tomorrow, what would you teach the class?
  • Did anyone push your buttons today?
  • Who do you want to make friends with but haven’t yet? Why not?
  • What is your teacher’s most important rule?
  • What is the most popular thing to do at break?
  • Does your teacher remind you of anyone else you know? How?
  • Tell me something you learned about a friend today.
  • If aliens came to school and beamed up 3 kids, who do you wish they would take? Why?
  • What is one thing you did today that was helpful?
  • When did you feel most proud of yourself today?
  • What rule was the hardest to follow today?
  • What is one thing you hope to learn before the school year is over?
  • Which person in your class is your exact opposite?
  • Which area of your school is the most fun?
  • Which playground skill do you plan to master this year?
  • Does anyone in your class have a hard time following the rules?

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