I'm always deeply curious about what my son gets up to at day care. So when I first started asking "How was your day?" I was delighted by his colourful responses. "Um…" he'd say, thinking carefully, "Sonny ate my pasta!" or "I played in the sandpit with dinosaurs!" But eventually, the question wore thin. Our chats, once the highlight of my day, ended abruptly with "Good" or just a simple shrug.
Missing our daily recap, I tried switching things up a bit. "What was your favourite thing about today?" prompted some wonderful responses ("Seeing Mummy" is always nice to hear). "Who picked their nose today?" always gets us giggling. But what gets us really chin-wagging are questions that address his feelings. "What made you sad today?" often gets him thinking, and while there's usually nothing to report, sometimes it turns out he is sad about something. Like that time when a kid told him his lunch (a favourite, corn fritters) was "yucky".
Psychologist Giuliett Moran of Empowering Parents says it's important to be specific when asking kids about their day. "Asking a child a general question, such as 'How was your day?' or 'Did you have a good day?' will often result in a one-word response," she says. "Asking specific, open-ended questions will prompt your child to engage in a conversation."
Moran goes on to explain that asking questions that address feelings or emotions can help develop a child's resilience. "Children need to be able to identify, label and communicate their feelings," she says. "It's important to make discussing feelings part of your everyday routine. This will help build social and emotional intelligence in your child - both life skills that set children up for success."
For some parents, it can be difficult to know how to respond when a child tells us he's sad or angry. Moran says it is best to acknowledge and validate the feeling. "We want to encourage and enable them to communicate their feelings to us, so that they can use the words 'I'm so angry' as a replacement for behaving poorly or reacting with anger," she says. "Try to separate the behaviour from the feeling."
Talking feelings can work both ways, too. Moran encourages parents to use this opportunity discuss the events of their own day. "This sets a great example and young children learn best through imitation," she says. "Try to find a balance of discussing positive and negative feelings. Teaching these skills will help with emotion regulation which is key in preventing and managing behavioural issues."
Moran suggests making chats as relaxed and enjoyable as possible. "Conversations shouldn't be forced or made to feel like a chore," says Moran. Instead, make them part of your everyday routine - while you're driving home, over dinner or during bath time. "The more you have these conversations, it'll become second nature and you'll find yourself having discussions without even realising!" she says.
As for a good time to start, Moran says it's never too early. "Even before a child learns to speak, talk them through your day," she says. "Recognise their feelings and label them, i.e. 'You look so happy playing with your ball'. We often make the mistake of thinking children are too young, or that they don't understand, but they are often ready before we realise and it establishes a good habit for the parent to make these conversations a normality."
To assist families in developing better conversational habits, Empowering Parents has released a series of Conversations Starter cards with themes such as 'Feelings & Emotions', 'About My Day' and 'Family Time'. To test them out, I practised a couple with my son. I started by sharing what made me feel happy that day, and then posed the question back to him. I was surprised by the consideration he put into his answer after hearing my story first. (I tested out a couple out on my husband too – with equally pleasing results!)
To get the conversation going with your kids, here are 20 questions to replace 'How was your day?' with:
1. What made you feel happy today?
2. What was your favourite thing about today?
3. What was your least favourite thing about today?
4. What made you feel worried today?
5. What made you feel excited today?
6. What made you feel grateful today?
7. Who were you kind to today?
8. Who was kind to you today?
9. What made you feel sad today?
10. Did anyone else feel sad today?
11. What made you feel angry today?
12. What made you laugh today?
13. Did anyone do anything silly today?
14. Did you give anyone a hug today?
15. Did you get mad with anyone today?
16. What did you like about your lunch today?
17. What made you feel proud today?
18. What did you find difficult today?
19. What made you feel scared today?
20. What do you wish you did differently today?