“What happened today?”
As most parents know all too well, the answer from your child is usually, “Nothing.”
A few years ago, while my son, Zephyr, was still in day care, I began to get nothing but “Nothing,” at pickup.
Like every other father and mother, I knew a whole lot of somethings were happening. But no matter how many times I asked the question, he revealed, well, nothing.
I was initially frustrated. After all, I wanted to know what he was doing and learning, with whom he was forming friendships and how he was feeling. Ironically, Zephyr is normally a very talkative kid, so his reticence seemed out of character.
Occasionally, he would casually drop some fact he gleaned into a later conversation, like “Bats are pollinators.” I figured out his BFFs by arriving early to pickup to watch him play and noted the children he mentioned when I asked about setting up play dates. And he would let slip micro anecdotes, such as “I was playing in the sand pit and my pail was stolen. That made me really sad.”
I had to pester him to find out further details, so I could sooth his hurt feelings and give him advice for how to react if it ever happened again.
I didn’t want to be Sherlock Holmes. I had neither time nor patience. I needed a different approach. Then I remembered the paradox of choice, the psychological theory that people freak out and freeze up when they have too many options when making a decision. I realized the question “What happened today?” is so wide open that kids don’t have anything to focus on, so they feel lost or powerless to answer.
I needed to create boundaries for Zephyr, so he could search for very specific memories rather than his entire memory bank. I devised a set of six questions I would ask him every day—and he had to answer them before I would put on the audiobook or tell a story for the remainder of our journey home. I designed the questions to cover the major elements of his day and to provide jumping off points for larger conversations, either in the moment or afterward.
The first five questions are: “What was the most interesting thing you learned?,” “What did you eat for lunch today?,” “Who did you play with?,” “Did anything happen that made you feel sad, mad, bad or confused?” and “What was the best thing that happened?”
They would help me ascertain his mood, his friendships, his interests, his diet and his sources of joy, as well as any problems he experienced or was navigating on a larger scale.
For the last question, he would be allowed to ask me anything he wanted. There would be no boundaries and I would have to truthfully answer him. I want him to expect me and my wife to be open and honest with him as we expect him to be with us. Hopefully, this will help ensure we can always communicate with him, especially as he gets older and begins processing more complex issues and situations.
The first day I told Zephyr he had to answer six questions may have been the first day he rolled his eyes at me. “Really, Poppa?” he asked. “I just want to hear a story.”
“And I just want to find out about my favorite boy’s day,” I responded.
The first few times, it took us a little while to make our way through my questionnaire, but he quickly embraced our little Q&A sessions. Soon enough I could tell he was even prepping for them sometimes, because he would have an anecdote ready when I asked about the highlight of his day or if he had any upsetting moments. Even though his answers weren’t always long, they were quite revealing. I learned about problem spots in his socio-emotional life, such as an ongoing issue with a play partner who wouldn’t share, which my wife and I then helped him overcome. And I learned what he was (and wasn’t) eating at lunch, so we could constantly reinforce the necessity of healthy, balanced meals.
When it came time for him to ask his question of me, he usually opted for, “Did you have a good or a bad day, Poppa?” (Basically, the kid version of “What happened today?”). However, some days he asked me how I handled certain situations when I was a kid or about the work I was doing.
No matter what we discussed, our conversations drew us even tighter together. Though our chats were put on hold due to the stay-at-home order, I’m looking forward to the time when we can reignite them. Always a highlight of my day, each exchange helped me get an even deeper sense of my son and figure out what I could do to ensure he was as happy, healthy and engaged as possible.
Nevin Martell is a Silver Spring-based food, travel and parenting writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Travel + Leisure and The Washington Post. He never thought he would say this, but he truly misses driving his son to and from school.