In our house, we sometimes fall into the trap of the obligatory afternoon check-in. It goes something like this: “Hi honey! I’m so happy to see you! How was your day?” “Good.” And then the evening routine begins. You know the one: preparing dinner, doing homework, activities, chores, practicing the violin, walking the dog, bathtime, bedtime… and then the evening is over and I feel like I never quite got enough time to connect.

We have tried a lot of variations on this conversation. I ask things like, “What was the best thing about your day? What didn’t you enjoy so much today?” and I get answers like, “Everything was good and nothing was bad.” I’d like to think that everything really was good and nothing really was bad, but let’s be honest – this isn’t really a conversation that connects me and my child in a meaningful way.

You see, I have that child who magically forgets everything that happened all day long the second she walks out the classroom door. If I want to learn about her day, I sometimes have to work for it. But it is worth the effort – I like to think of those moments of connection now as practice for the days to come when she is a tween and teen and it’s harder to connect. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

Ask a different kind of question.

What color shirt did your teacher wear today? What’s the hardest spelling word on  your list? What kind of project are you working on in your art class? If you got to be teacher for the day, what would you change about your classroom?

“How was your day?” is expected. But sometimes a question that’s unexpected opens the door for a lot of insight about your child’s school environment.

Try a change of venue.

Sometimes your kids will just naturally open up in the car or on a walk through the neighborhood, but at home will gravitate to the toys or activities that are present. Leave your phone in your pocket and go look for geese or squirrels or fall leaves instead. In our family, we will go to the bookstore on a rainy afternoon, to the library to hang out and read, or even just through the drive-thru for an iced tea and a chocolate milk – somehow an occasional change of venue gives us a little nudge out of our routine.

Invite your child to tell you about his or her classmates.

What do the boys (or girls) in your class like to do during recess? What did your classmates bring to school for lunch today? What nationalities are represented in your classroom? Who likes the same books you do? Whose personality is totally different from yours? Who is quiet and shy? Who is loud and outgoing? What subjects or activities do your classmates really seem to enjoy? Do you notice whether anyone in your class is having a hard time at school?

Sometimes it’s easier for your child to talk about a classmate than about himself or herself. You can learn a lot about what your child is experiencing at school by asking about his or her classmates.  This is how I learned that my daughter’s classmates play pretend Pokemon on the playground every day, that she’d like to have potstickers in her Thermos for lunch, and that clicky pens are more distracting than the banned fidget spinners. (I also learned that these are very important matters in fourth grade.)

Tell your child something that’s special about him or her.

Maybe your child worked really hard on a project, built a very creative structure with blocks, or did something especially kind or clever. Maybe you have a memory of your child as a baby or younger child that gives you positive feelings to recall. Share this with your child. Sometimes when you’re in the middle of a busy day – especially if it’s a busy day for your child too – a word of encouragement to remind your child how special he or she is to you is just the thing to create a feeling of connection.

Have a cuddle.

Pick a chilly rainy fall afternoon and make some cocoa to drink together on the couch under a blanket. Or invite your kids to pile into your bed for a few minutes before you move on to the next thing. Sometimes just stopping and making a little physical contact makes everyone feel calm and more connected. I’m surprised sometimes how much my child opens up about her day when she climbs into my bed to read with me in the evenings.

Play.

We talk about the importance of play all the time at preschool. And we know how busy your family’s afternoons are, because ours are too! But whether it’s getting down on the floor to build with Legos for a few minutes or just a momentary playful interaction, somehow we seem to relax and reconnect through play. Give your child a big bear hug or a dozen silly kisses. Color or draw together. If you can throw dinner in the oven and sit down for a few minutes to play, you might discover that during a silly or fun moment you have made a little connection with your child.

We say it over and over again… it is so easy to become so busy, even when our children are still very young. I know that my small family is often surprised by how often we feel a bit overscheduled, and as much as we try to avoid it, some days all our good and profitable activities add up into a very busy day. We get tired, and sometimes some days go by and I realize I haven’t really connected with my husband or my child in an intentional way. I’m trying to do that a little better these days, and these are some of the ways I try to be purposeful about connecting with my family. Do you have favorite little ways of connecting with your kids? Tell me about it!