Learning requires repetition.1 We have to revisit new content frequently in order to form deep understanding and strong memories.1 That’s how the brain’s neuroplasticity mechanism works. The repetitions can come in many forms, most of which fall under the umbrella-term “studying,” but parents can, through the simple act of conversation, help support this aspect of the learning process.
Simply asking your children what they learned in school each day can help them form better memories of what they learned. To be really effective, you should ask about each subject individually. If you already know what your child is learning, you can find ways to bring it up, in order to remind him of it. The more often those neurons fire, the stronger those connections will be. Even if you have a teenager who doesn’t respond at all or seems upset that you would even ask, just mentioning the content will cause him to think about it.
However, please be aware that as you attempt to engage your child in this way, you’re entering a delicate situation.
It turns out that how you bring up schoolwork with your child is a really big deal. The goals should be the following: to have a pleasant conversation; and to express that you’re interested in the learning process and curious about the subject matter. These goals are surprisingly hard to achieve. Here are some key ideas to help:
Try to level the playing field.
When one person is dominant, no conversation can be had. The best conversations are exchanges between equals. As parents, you hold most of the power in the household, and are older, physically larger, and more educated, so creating a truly level field on which to hold a conversation with your children is by no means easy. Primarily, this is done by allowing your children to speak freely and by genuinely listening to what they have to say.
Leveling the playing field does not mean that you give in to their whims or abandon your role as the authority figure in the house. Nor does it mean failing to correct them when they’re wrong. It just means creating an atmosphere of psychological safety in which your children feel that they have a voice. We are reciprocal beings,2 so if you want your children to listen to what you have to say, you must first show your willingness to listen to them.
The language I used in the title of this article was deliberate: It’s better to talk with your children about school than to talk to your children about school. A good question to keep in the back of your mind is “Who’s talking?” Hopefully, it’s both of you. If the “conversation” starts to feel one-sided or takes on the tone of a lecture, the playing field is no longer level.
Here at Northwest Educational Services, Greg has long been summarizing this issue with a pair of simple, stick-figure drawings:
On the left, you can see that the playing field is unequal, and information is only flowing in one direction. On the right, you can see a conversation taking place between equals, with information flowing in both directions.
Now, let’s be clear, there are times when it’s absolutely necessary for parents to engage their children with the model on the left. This is especially true for young children, who will often endanger themselves without parental supervision. If your child is about to touch a burning-hot stove, and you shout “No!” to stop them, that’s a good thing to do. As children grow up, these top-down interactions become less and less necessary, so parenting should gradually shift away from commands and toward conversations.
Parents use commands to rescue their children from danger, as with the stove example. Understandably, most parents also use commands to rescue their children from all sorts of minor problems, ranging from skinned knees to a bad grade on a test. However, there are two major problems with this strategy.
One problem is that as soon as your children become teenagers, your commands will become less effective and may even have the opposite of your intended effect. Teenagers don’t like to be told what to do.
The other reason it’s unwise to use commands to save your children the hardship of minor failures is that these mistakes teach valuable lessons. We don’t learn from mistakes that we don’t actually make. It is the pain of the failure that inspires us to learn from it. For example, if you keep track of your son’s homework for him to make sure he never misses a due date, then he’ll never suffer the discomfort of a bad grade, and, as a result, he’ll never learn the value of using a planner. Likewise, if you command your daughter to use the best study methods to ensure that she always does well on tests, she’ll never experience the pain of failing a test, and, as a result, she’ll never truly understand the value of those study methods.
Part of leveling the playing field is speaking less, even if that means occasionally allowing your children to mess up. If you don’t let them fail at little things when they’re young, they won’t learn the important lessons that prevent large failures when they’re older. It’s better to get a bad grade in a 7th grade class than in an 11th grade class. It’s better to fail Geometry than fail out of college.
This is, to be sure, a very hard thing to do. Every parents’ instincts are to protect their children from any and all harm, so to counteract those instincts, we’ve got to think about the long-term game we’re playing. We’re trying to set our children up for life-long independence, and to do that, we have to gradually make them less and less dependent on us.
Focus on content not grades.
If your focus is grades, your child will learn that what counts is grades, not learning. Gradually, your child will lose interest in the content he’s learning, and care more about his GPA instead. Ironically, it is a passionate interest in learning the content that results in good grades, so this focus on grades typically backfires. Even high-achieving students who still maintain a strong GPA as their interest in learning fades tend to do the bare-minimum to get A’s and avoid the deep learning that more curious students do, and this harms them in the long run.
Of course, looking at grades is inevitable, either because your children mention their grades, or simply because a report card arrives in the mail. It turns out that how you react to grades is very important. Difficult though it is, try to keep your emotions neutral. Whether it’s a high grade or a low grade should not produce an emotional reaction.
Grades should be seen as data, as feedback. High grades indicate that hard work was done and effective strategies were used, and low grades simply indicate that better strategies could be utilized, more time could be spent, or both. This type of response to grades is much more useful than calling high grades “good” and low grades “bad.” This type of response is also characteristic of growth-minded students.3
Grades of all kinds are much easier to talk about if they’re treated as helpful feedback. Conversely, low grades are very difficult to talk about if they’re treated as “bad.” Conversations about “bad” grades tend not to be conversations at all.
Furthermore, even if a student consistently brings home “good” grades, greeting these high grades with exuberant positive emotions and congratulations on being “smart” isn’t helpful.3 If high grades are treated in this way, then it’s implied that low grades will be treated in the opposite manner. As a result, if that student does get a low grade at any point in the future, he’ll want to hide it, he won’t learn from the feedback, and he’ll see it as evidence that he’s not really smart after all.3
Grades should simply be an indication of how the learning is going, and we want to make learning the focus of any conversation about school. One way to achieve that is by asking the following question:
“What did you learn today?”
This is a question that has the potential to get students thinking about the content they’ve been working on in school. Ideally, your child will do more than simply name topics. It’s best if the student attempts to provide a summary or explanation of the content. You might have to ask for this and pretend you don’t know anything about it.
When a student can explain what he’s learning, it means he’s developing a good understanding of it. If he can’t explain it, it can serve as a clear signal that further study is needed.
There are lots of fun variations to this question the help keep the conversation from becoming a repetitive routine. Here are some examples:
- What was the weirdest thing you learned today?
- What was the hardest thing you learned today?
- What was the easiest thing you learned today?
- What was the most useful thing you learned today?
- What was the least useful thing you learned today?
- What was something from school today that didn’t make any sense?
- What was something surprising that happened at school today?
You can, of course, come up with your own variations. The goals here is to be playful and spark a genuine conversation.
However, most parents have tried this approach and gotten uninspired responses, or even experienced the joy of the discussion devolving into an argument. One way to handle this difficulty is to begin by talking about everything other than school.
Ask your children about the other things that are going on in their lives. Talk about sports, music, the weather, the news, friends, future plans, or your job. By doing so, you’re making it clear that you care about a lot more than just school. This makes talking about school less emotionally significant, which often results in children lowering their defenses and opening up.
If talking with your children about school has been going poorly for a while, you may need to avoid the topic completely and just have regular conversations for a few months. They have to feel comfortable talking to you about mundane things before you can hope to begin discussing school again.
Here’s an example of this playing out between Greg and one of his daughters. Keep in mind as you read that Greg’s tone throughout this interaction is upbeat and happy, with not a trace of anger:
Greg: “Hi Kira! How was your day?”
Whatever Kira’s response, Greg follows her lead and asks open-ended questions to get her to keep sharing. Often, she talks about recess, lunch, or the boy that pulled her hair. Eventually, when it feels natural, he steers the conversation toward school:
Greg: “So, what did you learn today?”
Greg: “Well that’s a silly answer. Of course you learned something. Give it some thought while I make a snack, and let me know when you’ve got something to share.”
Kira: “Dad, I seriously didn’t learn anything.”
Greg: “Oh sorry, I misunderstood the conversation we were having. I thought you were just tired and not interested in talking about school. It sounds like we might be having a much bigger conversation about engaging at school. You don’t need teachers or books to learn. You were away from this house for eight hours, and you’re always learning. It’s important you learn to talk about what you’re learning, whether that learning comes from school or from life. I’ll be back in a few minutes. Can’t wait to try this again.”
In this conversation, Greg didn’t get the type of answer he was looking for, so he framed the discussion for Kira in a way she wasn’t expecting. Greg assumed that learning would be happening all the time, and simply insisted on talking about it. He didn’t get upset, but Kira was held accountable for answering the question.
The first couple times Greg asked Kira this question, it was awkward and challenging for both of them, but once Kira understood and felt Greg’s values, she learned to engage in these conversations in a meaningful way. Greg made it clear that when he asks a legitimate question, he expects a well-thought-out answer. He also made it clear he will always assume that his daughter has learned something. And finally, he made it clear that learning is something worth discussing.
Make Curiosity a Family Value
In this TED Talk, John Green recently described learning as “cartography”–mapping a territory by exploring it, simply because you’re curious.4 He also described the value of being part of a “community of learners.”4 Certain schools, workplaces, and online communities create an environment that is permeated by a love of learning.4
There’s no reason this can’t be achieved at home if you lead the way. If you regularly display a genuine curiosity about the world, it will rub off on your children. Just please don’t expect everything to change instantly. Over time, your family can become a community of learners in which everyone is excited to share new ideas.
Ask open-ended questions.
“What did you learn today?” is an example of an open-ended question. This type of question is far better at sparking conversations than closed-ended questions. Closed-ended questions are those that can be answered with a single word or some other very brief answer. A child can’t develop his voice by just answering “yes” or “no.”
Try to avoid these:
- How was your day?
- Is your homework done?
- Did you study for the test?
Consider these alternatives:
- What was something interesting that happened today?
- If you could ask one of your teachers a question right now, what would it be?
- What are some ways of studying that you’ve tried in the past? What’s a way you’ve never tried?
However, because even open-ended questions can get terse replies, you may have to practice the art of follow-up questions. See if you can find ways to dig deeper into the subject at hand, not by poking, prodding, and painfully extracting information, but by expressing genuine interest in the content. Because emotions are contagious, any curiosity and excitement you display has a good chance of spreading to your child.
This may involve some acting on your part. You might need to pretend you don’t know about a subject, so your child has a chance to explain it. You might deliberately guess wrong, so your child can correct you. If your child is having difficulty with a subject, it’s especially powerful to say something like this:
“Oh I remember that! That was really hard for me to learn. I remember struggling with that for a long time. How are they teaching it now?”
There is a fine line between a conversation and an interrogation, and it’s helpful to keep this in mind. Children, and teenagers especially, are acutely aware of parental attempts to oversee, manage, and control. If your child catches so much as a whiff of these things, he’ll disengage from the conversation or actively resist it. It’s critical to avoid anything that antagonizes the child, such as criticism, judgement, or unwanted advice.
When one party feels antagonized, what should have been a conversation turns into an argument, often a one-sided one, in which the parent chastises or criticizes the child and the child either makes excuses or shuts down. Don’t feel bad if this has happened to you–it’s an experience so common that it extends beyond human interactions:
So yes, parents should talk with their children about the content they’re learning in school, but the manner in which this is done matters a great deal.
We’re here to help.
In fact, this type of interaction between parent and child is so delicate that many parents use Northwest Educational Services for coaching in this area. Parents come to our office, sit down with Greg, and learn some ways to make these interactions more fruitful. To supplement this offering, Greg and I offer a series of summer seminars on parenting successful students.
For details or to schedule an appointment, please call or email Greg Smith at (206) 282-4637 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.
2 Wright, Robert. The Moral Animal. Vintage Books, 1994.
3 Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books, 2007.
4 Green, John. “The nerd’s guide to learning everything online.” TEDxIndianapolis. November 2012.
Title Image: Loper, Chris. 2015.
Two Types of Interaction: Smith, Greg. 2015.
Birds: Ritenour, Anita. “LOOK at me When I’m Talkin’ To You!” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0.
Racoons: Tambako The Jaguar. “Raccoon argument II.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0.
Tigers: Tambako The Jaguar. “Tiger argument.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0.