“What did you do at school today?”
“I don’t know.”
Cue our adult brains going into action searching for the next question to ask because… surely, they did something at school, right?
Right. But think for a moment if an adult asked you after your long workday, ‘What did you do at work today?” most of us have a hard time conceptualizing our day into a nice conversation bit that succinctly and accurately describes what we did at work that day.
"I don't know."
I love when I hear parents and caregivers asking their children what they did at school that day, taking an interest in their lives and becoming curious with them. I am never surprised and often expect a child to respond with, ‘I don’t know,’ because that’s a tough question, that is a very big question and can feel much too broad to answer.
See, it’s weird, if we get the privilege to grow older, we begin to develop this sense of urgency in our adult bodies and brains. This sense of urgency comes in handy, sometimes, but when it comes to conversations with our kids, that sense of urgency is an adult need, not a child need. The hustle of every day life creates these chemicals in our body that prime and prep us to ‘stay ready’ for anything, these chemicals are cortisol and adrenaline.
Let’s get biological for a moment;
we have an incredibly intricate and loving self-protective system in our bodies; our brain’s number one job is to keep us alive. The way this works is much more in-depth but at the surface level, our body produces a hormone called ‘cortisol’ which is our primary stress hormone. Cortisol is released into our bloodstream after receiving a signal from our adrenal glands that allows our brain and body to stay on ‘high alert.’ What can happen for a lot of us is the experience of constantly releasing those stress hormones so that we are always ready, for whatever, and let’s be real for a moment, being ready for whatever might happen proves safer for some of us than being vulnerable to what could happen. The more that we release these stress hormones, the more our body gets addicted to this chemical and we feel ill-equipped without the release of cortisol. Slowing things down, even as much as our conversations, can drive an internal sense of dysregulation. In comes the sense of urgency we feel.
When you think about it, it makes sense why the question, ‘what did you do at school today?’ quickly and without thought comes out, it’s driven by that sense of urgency, (which remember, is an adult need, not a child need) and our kids feel that urgency. This sense of urgency is an energy we put out with our body language, facial expressions, movements, questions, etc., and our kids pick up on it so automatically that they also quickly, and without thought, answer your question with, ‘I don’t know.’ Our kids take their cues from us, if we are calm, they have the opportunity to be calm and self-explorative.
So what now?
First, check-in with yourself in times of a power struggle with your child—ask yourself, is this an adult need or a child need in this moment? Check-in with your body, your physical body, become aware of the sensations in your legs, thighs, arms, chest, neck, jaw, etc., when you notice yourself starting to feel that sense of urgency. (Because sometimes, that urgency serves us by protecting us.) Create a felt sense of safety, trust, and acceptance by becoming aware of what you do in times of stress, how you react or respond when you are on high alert because your kids will match your energy.
By asking one of the following questions, you create the opportunity for an intersubjective experience with your child.
“What made you laugh at school today?”
“What were you excited about today at school?
“What made you feel confident today?
“What was your peach and your pit from your day?”
“How were you helpful today? Did someone help you in a way that felt supportive?”
“What was hard about your day today?”
“I’m so excited to hear about your day, tell me what stood out!”
“What made today better (or worse) than yesterday?”
“Did you notice any uncomfortable emotions today?”
(Remember, comfortable versus uncomfortable—there is no such thing as ‘good or bad’ or ‘right or wrong’ emotions.)
“How was someone kind to you today? How did you feel after that?”
“How did you tune into yourself today? Were there times of the day that seemed easier than others?
“What do you think the best thing about today was? Tell me about the worst thing.”
And remember, you were a human before you were a parent or caregiver, you are not expected to be perfect, as perfect is an illusion of our minds that society and capitalism thrive on and often holds us back from trying something new.