Taking Time to Talk with Your Kids

“Lisa, please pick up your room.”
“Eat your vegetables, Terry!”
“Where are you going dressed like that?”
“Did you do your homework?”
“Please pick up your toys from the middle of the living room before you leave for Tom’s house.”
“It’s time for bed now!”

These are all very necessary comments and questions when one is raising a child. We parents use them, or similar remarks, daily, and they are important. Our children need to learn to follow directions, to follow through on commitments, and to take responsibility for their actions. It’s easy, however, to forget that this kind of language does little to nurture our kids’ ability to hold a conversation and teach the skills that are required to be a good conversational partner. After all, we are talking to the kids, right? Sometimes they even answer us, and they do generally listen and comply with the things we’ve asked of them. Isn’t that good enough? Quite frankly, no, it’s not. Children need to learn to take direction, true, but they also need to learn to carry their end of a social conversation. This can only happen when they’ve had practice. The best place to get practice is in their own home with caring adults and their siblings. Conversation is an art that must be learned rather than an instinctive response that will happen naturally.

First of all, it’s important to define what is meant by “conversation.” Conversation, according to the Webster’s Dictionary, is “an informal, spoken interchange of thoughts and information.” Notice the word “interchange.” There are at least two sides to conversations! Both (or all) parties need to have a hand in expressing their opinions, thoughts and ideas. That is why the above comments are not truly conversation. When an adult is giving a command, suggestion, or reprimand to a child, the opportunity for that two-way communication is simply not available. If the child answers at all, he or she is expected to respond in a respectful and positive way. Any negative comments or expressed thoughts that are contrary to the adult’s statement are either ignored or punished. The situation doesn’t leave much chance for two-sided interchange.

Instead, conversation is what happens when an adult asks for a child’s opinion on some matter of interest, truly listens, and considers the information expressed. Conversation is most likely over the dinner table, while driving, or while working together on a mutually enjoyable project. Parents or caregivers discuss issues, feelings, or other topics on a more or less equal basis. They exchange ideas and thoughts with one another in an uncritical and nonthreatening way. Conversation leaves everyone feeling like they know each other just a bit better and have had a chance to express themselves. It’s truly an art form!

Why are conversation skills so important to learn? In our society, people need to become competent at conversation in order to be socially acceptable. Children need to be taught to listen to the conversation, to take turns speaking in an appropriate manner, to respect the opinions and ideas of others, and to take turns being in charge of the talking.

While driving my daughters a few weeks ago, I overheard a very interesting “conversation” between the two youngest. I put the word in quotation marks, because what I actually heard was only conversation in the very loosest sense of the word. Here is a sample:

“Guess what we’re learning about in science class!” chirped daughter number one.
“I had an awful day today,” answered daughter number two.
“We’re learning about magnets and their uses. We got to take magnets around the room and see what would stick to them,” said daughter number one.
“I forgot my gym clothes, and then my locker door jammed,” replied daughter number two.
“I found that magnets stick to some of the metal things, but nothing made of plastic, paper or cloth,” said daughter number one.
“Then would you believe that my geometry teacher assigned us FIFTEEN problems for homework???” moaned daughter number two.

You can see that they were taking turns speaking much like a conversation, but it was like they were miles apart and talking to themselves. Neither one showed the slightest bit of interest in what the other one had to say. They were so intent on getting their own messages out that they completely forgot about the listening component of true conversations! Of course, both them ended this exchange feeling ignored and abused. They came to me separately later in the day and asked why their sister had been ignoring them. It took a while to soothe the hurt feelings and it will take much longer to reteach the concepts about conversation that I had thought they both had mastered.

Listening skills are foundational to conversation. Without them, conversations become disconnected and nonproductive, much like the example above. Participants feel ignored and unheard because they are ignored and unheard. The conversation is unsatisfying for all concerned.

The trick becomes teaching children to be better listeners. Listening is a learned skill, and your child can become a better listener with practice. Try playing games that require listening to spoken clues, such as Twenty Questions, I Spy, and that old standby, I’m Going on a Picnic and I’m Going to TakeâÂ?¦. Each of these games encourages kids to listen to the clues given and to take turns speaking and listening. Your child will also enjoy a listening scavenger hunt. Try making a list of common sounds, and send your players out to listen for them. You may even want to arm your sound detectives with a tape recorder to capture the sounds they are seeking. Turn this game around by making recordings of common sounds and seeing if your child can identify them.

Jokes and riddles also encourage the skill of taking turns with talking. People need to listen and pay attention to what is said in order to understand what was funny. Jokes and riddles also involve a give and take similar to conversation: one person talks and the other person responds. If your children take turns telling jokes to one another, they will be practicing skills that become valuable in conversation. Another tool that you can use to nurture conversational skills is choral reading. Choose a poem or even a play and assign parts to each person. Have them read in turn, each picking up where the last left off. The child will need to pay close attention to language and tonal cues to realize when each speaker is finishing up their part, and also will need to monitor what is being said in order to be ready for their part.

The ability to lead and direct a conversation also improves with opportunity. This is one skill that you can build with direct practice: put your child in charge of a section of conversation during a time when your family is gathered for a meal or a trip. With a bit of advanced notice, kids can prepare questions and other conversational motivators to keep things rolling. Allow your youngster the privilege of choosing what you talk about together or even at the dinner table. Be aware, though, of how much of the conversation is being directed by whom. You’ll want to teach balance; everyone has a right to lead the conversation from time to time, and everyone needs to pass that lead to others and avoid dominating all the talk.

Respect for others’ opinions is perhaps the most difficult skill to instill in kids. Being naturally self-centered, youngsters have a particularly difficult time listening to differing opinions. Indeed, young children may even have difficulty understanding the difference between fact and opinion and recognizing opinions when they hear them or when they express them. Teach your child this important difference by playing games. Try making statements of fact and mixing in opinions. See if your kids can find the opinions in the group. You might also point out how the wording of statements can create bias. Look for biased statements in news programs, newspapers, and magazines. It’s an important skill to develop!

Be intentional about teaching your children the fine art of conversation. The skill is vital for social success and to build and maintain the relationships that help us all to feel happy and successful. A little bit of effort now, while they are young, will reap boundless rewards when they are grown.

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