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Stop Asking, 'How Was Your Day?'

Adolescent boy, sulking
Photograph by Getty Images

The question is as predictable as its futility: You walk in the door (or your child does), and you immediately ask, “How was your day?” The answer, regardless of its accuracy, is always the same: “Fine.”

It’s like a tic—or some masochistic impulse—that parents have (maybe just mothers?) that return to the same meaningless interchange. Do we really think that this time we’ll get a different response? That one day our son or daughter will say, “It was awesome. I have a crush on this boy and he finally looked at me in math and Emma says he likes me too but she was weird to me in the lunch line so I’m not sure we’re friends anymore.”?

Your child might reveal that stuff to you, but probably not the minute she sees you, or when prompted by that ubiquitous query: How was your day?

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I have kids (ages 7 and 9) and I teach kids (ages 12 to 14), and they are all driven crazy by this question. “It’s so annoying!” one of my 8th graders said when I asked the class if any of their moms started off their afternoons like this. “I’ll say, 'fine,' she related. “And then she’ll say, ‘That doesn’t sound good. What happened?’ I just said ‘fine!’”

We want to know everything that happens to our children when we’re not there, but it takes awhile (and a lot of restraint) to figure out that we’re never going to find out by asking that question. It’s the definition of perfunctory, and we all know it.

Some therapists and behavioral psychologists maintain it doesn’t work because it’s a conversation ender, not a starter. They say that better alternatives would be, “What’s one thing that made you laugh today?” or “Who’s one person you enjoyed seeing today?” I’ve tried stuff like that, and instead of getting “fine,” or “good,” I get another favorite: “I don’t know.” It’s used a lot for questions like, “What did you learn today?”

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I can’t believe I’m saying this, but maybe we should stop trying to communicate with our children so much—at least on our terms. As long as we’re not absent most of the time, or drunk, we should just be there. Put food on the table and be mute. Or maybe we should come up with something to share at the end of the day.

“Hey, did you know that someone broke the world record today for standing on one toe?”

Maybe once we stop white-knuckling the meaningful interaction, the trivial will take us there.

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