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Conversations with Children: Beyond the One Word Answers

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Children don’t usually make plans to have conversations with us. We have to be physically available to them in order to stimulate conversation. If we’re with them, we’re bound to hear what’s on their minds. But if they constantly have to seek us out or wait for our schedules to open up, or if they have to contend with frequent lack of interest or diverted attention, they may stop talking.


So how can we stay connected with our children through conversations?


Be available.
Children are very immediate, especially when it comes to their feelings, emotions, and worries. When your child wants to talk, do your very best to make yourself available.


Be fully present.
In a multitasking world, undivided attention is a precious commodity. Children need parents who listen with their eyes and ears. Put down the newspaper and turn off the mobile phone, computer, Blackberry, iPod, car radio, television, or other distractions that dilute the conversation.


Listen.
Often our conversations are one-sided. There are so many things we need to tell and teach our children that we often fall into a pattern of directive monologues. Try just listening.


Create situations that stimulate conversations.
Here are a few ideas for fostering an atmosphere that stimulates conversation:


  • Appreciate your child’s unique personality. Some children are eager to chat. Others need time to open up to conversation.
  • Be sensitive to your child’s primary needs. If your child is hungry, headed to the bathroom, or just relaxing after a busy school day, he may not want to talk at that moment.
  • Allow for conversation rituals and individual preferences. Some children may need time to play quietly or hang out in their rooms before volunteering information and answering questions. Many will save their most intimate thoughts for “tuck-in time.”
  • Do things together. Riding in the car, having a snack at the kitchen table, and doing chores together are all good times for conversation.
  • Ask questions. Many children need a little prompting or gentle questioning to help them open up and share their thoughts. Ask questions that require more than a yes or no answer. “What do you think?” “How do you feel about . . . ?” “What would you do if . . . ?” “Help me understand . . .” “Tell me about it.”


Show interest by following up.
After a conversation, try to follow up. If your child was worried about a math test, ask her, “How did it go?” To remain more positive, avoid, “What grade did you get?” If he mentioned once that he would like to go rollerblading, arrange a time to skate.


James D. MacDonald, Director of the Parent-Child Communication Clinic at Ohio State University, offers the following suggestions to help parents have more enjoyable, successful conversations with their children.


Communicate for a variety of reasons. Talk about anything with your child, but don’t do all the talking. Be sure to share the lead with your child. Talk sometimes about what he just said and at other times about your own ideas.


Communicate more for enjoyable social contact than to get something done. While there are certainly times to get things done, they are not frequent enough for your child to learn language and conversation. When parents and other adults become more of a “partner” and less of a “boss” during conversations, children enjoy the time more and stay interacting longer.


Comment and wait. When you make a comment, express what you think and see, without demanding a particular response from your child. Any response the child makes is a “success” and can keep the conversation going if you follow your child’s lead.


Reply to your child’s comments. Without our continued attention, many children are not likely to get into a habit of talking with others. Avoid the habit of accepting or listening to any child talk without responding to it.


Keep conversations balanced. It is normal for children to talk mainly about themselves, but it is important for them to talk about other’s ideas as well. Help your child learn to talk about other’s interests as well as her own.


Think of talking as creative play. Unless a child feels free of judgment and failure in an interaction, he is not likely to communicate much of what he knows. Enjoy watching and hearing your child create new ideas.


Follow rules of social conversations. When your child is in the habit of having conversations, you can then start to show her the basic rules that will increasingly be expected from her. Some of those are: communicate for a response, wait silently, respond to the other person’s intent, be clear about what she means, and change her words if not understood.


As parents, we have a primary influence on our children’s development of language and other literacy skills. And it’s really not that complicated or difficult. One of the best and most rewarding things we can do with our children is to simply talk and, most important, listen. 

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