I am a schoolteacher, so questions are the tools of my trade. With my students, I think carefully about asking the right questions, aimed at the level of the child I am speaking to, so that I can get the appropriate response. The key part of this is that the questions are different every time so that I can gauge their understanding, support their ideas and extend their thinking.
As a parent, I ask the same five damn questions every flaming day.
1. Can you get dressed?
I’m probably not phrasing this question correctly to start with. Of course, they can get dressed. The issue is that they are not choosing to. When I have the energy, I try to make it into a game or a race. But there are many mornings when I am scrabbling around the fridge for ‘healthy’ packed lunch ingredients, trying to think up convincing book titles to write in their school reading journals and working out what to do with my hair which I haven’t had time to wash, and I just need them to get their blasted clothes on. The sight of them wandering aimlessly into the kitchen wearing only an inside out polo shirt and a pair of socks when we have five minutes until we leave the house has been known to cause me to rephrase this question by inserting the words ‘just’ and ‘bloody’ and raising the volume accordingly.
2. Will you eat your dinner?
After half an hour of “I’m starving! When’s dinner going to be ready? Can I have a biscuit? But I’m starving!” I place dinner in front of my children, they eat a forkful or two and then . . . stop. For the next 20 minutes I am then asking the above question on repeat until we get to the bitter end. Dan doesn’t do this. If they aren’t eating their dinner, he reminds them once and then just takes it away and they get nothing else until the next meal. My issue with that is, thirty minutes later, the “I’m starving” mantra begins again and, although the rational side of me is fully aware that they will not waste away after missing just one meal, it pushes some primeval button in my mum-psyche and I just can’t bear it.
3. Have you flushed the toilet?
Really. How hard can it be? You do your business, wipe your bottom, flush the toilet and wash your hands. My six year old son can build an entire spacecraft following Lego instructions, but he can’t master that process. Sometimes we get two out of four, even three. But rarely are all four parts of the routine completed. I’m not sure what’s worse: going to the toilet and being greeted by a two-hours-old poo or knowing that they are wiping their germ infested hands around the living room.
4. Are you tired?
This one does not go down well at all. Usually provoked by a grizzling child who would clearly benefit from an early visit to bed, the suggestion that they are tired triggers an outraged response: “I am NOT tired!” Is it that they see an admission of weariness as a sign of weakness? Do they think we are going to start having the most tremendous fun as soon as they close their eyes? Is their ‘shut down’ function faulty in some way?
On reflection, if someone asked me the same question, offered to brush my teeth, put me in some warm PJs and read me a story I think I would also start weeping. With grateful happiness.
5. What did you do at school today?
I’ve tried all the tactics I can to find out what my children do for the six daylight hours we are apart. “Tell me something new you learned today!” or “Did anything funny happen?” or “Just tell me anything you did and I will give you a packet of Haribos.” William is the worst for divulging information. He always tells me “I did a little bit of everything” and assumes that should cover it. Scarlett is slightly more forthcoming but she gets halfway through and then forgets the vital bit of information. “I got a tickled pink sticker but I can’t remember what it was for.” It’s like reading a mystery novel with the last page ripped out.
Strangely enough, they will be much more likely to give me a fully developed answer, right down to what they had for lunch and which child had the humiliation of being on the red spot that day, when it is time for bed. Surprising, that.