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Why ‘how was school?’ isn’t a good question to ask kids. Here's what to say instead

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"How was school?" and "How was your day?" aren't the best questions to ask children after a day at school, according to psychologists.

"'How was your day?' could mean 100 things," Dr. Linda Papadopoulos, a psychologist, author and broadcaster, told CNBC by phone.

"Those very wide questions are often going to be met with 'yeah, it was fine'," she said.

They would've been asked questions all day and might still be in a "performance" mindset, she said.

"Most adults want to switch off after work and let go of their day — children are the same," child psychologist Dr. Martha Deiros Collado said in an email to CNBC. "Their mind needs a break and often their main focus is on food, fun, play, and rest," she added.

Why it's such a common question

"Children will spend more time at school than with their parents during the week and so asking this question often comes from a place of curiosity," according to Deiros Collado, author of the forthcoming book, "How to be The Grown-Up: Why Good Parenting Starts with You."

"Parents often forget that when they were asked the same question as children they would also grunt 'fine' or roll their eyes in boredom," she said.

Be aware that asking "How was school?" every day can become a "lazy habit," Deiros Collado said. Remember that doing this is "not bringing new information or connection between you and your child," she added.

What to say right after school

Be patient and wait until your child is ready to talk, Deiros Collado said.

"In the moment, focus on how it feels to see your child again at the end of your day, for example by saying: 'I am so glad to see you.' ... Notice whether your child is coming out of school loaded with emotion and withdrawn, or all smiles and giggly," she added.

Try to "name" their emotion when you see it. For example, you could say "'You look so happy! Something fun must have happened today.' See whether this helps your child open up ... Neuroscientific evidence shows that naming an emotion can help bring calm to the body. Only when kids are calm and their basic needs are met can they hold a meaningful conversation," Deiros Collado said.

When to talk to your child

"Timing is everything," according to Papadopoulos. Rather than asking them about their day as soon as they get in the car when you collect them, wait until they're in a calmer mood.

"Before bedtime is a lovely one, kids are more relaxed. Sometimes that need to wind down before bed is a great chance to talk, especially if you're lying next to them … [instead of] doing that face-to-face thing that often feels confrontational," she said.

With younger children, engaging in an activity might be a way to start a conversation.

"Take out some plasticine, or a coloring book or a puzzle, and then [say] 'remind me … you were saying the other day that being in year 2 is really different. Is it?'" Chatting in this way feels "less like an interview," Papadopoulos said.

Questions to ask instead

"If what you want is to hear about your child's day and connect with them, it needs to begin with you," Deiros Collado said. "Model what it sounds like to talk about your day," she added.

Papadopoulos also recommended that approach. You could say: "'I missed you today. When I went to work, it was really funny, someone brought in a cake and it was my favorite flavor' … This idea of sharing is often critical in helping them open up as well," she said.

"Talk about something real, something that has made you laugh, surprised you, reminded you of them, someone you have spoken to, what you had for lunch, how you felt today… Sharing your day makes it more likely that your child will want to ... share about their day," Deiros Collado said.

Avoid starting questions with "did," which will elicit a "yes" or "no" answer, or "why," which can get an "I don't know," she said.

"What" is a much better way to begin, Deiros Collado said. For example:

  • "What made you laugh today?"
  • "What was your favorite thing that happened today?"
  • "What did you enjoy most about playtime or lunch today?"
  • "What did [a teacher or friend] say today?"

It's also important to talk about emotions, as they can "show you a different side of your child's day," Deiros Collado said.

For example, you can ask:

  • "Were you feeling sad today? What happened to make you feel better?"
  • "What was something that was difficult for you, but you did it anyway?"
  • "Was there a time that you felt lonely? And what did you do about it?"

Feelings versus facts

It's also worth trying to help your child separate feelings from facts. If a child says, "I feel I'm doing really badly at school," it doesn't mean they are, Papadopoulos said.

If your child is in their early teens, you need to take other things into account. "You've got to remember their peer group is really, really important to them," Papadopoulos said. It's also about "being open to speaking on their schedule" and asking about something that's concerning you more than once.

Be prepared that as they get older, their peer group will often be the first port of call, Papadopoulos added. "It doesn't mean there's no space for you, it just means maybe you need to find a way of [talking to them] on their terms."