Remember when your child first learned to talk and ask questions “Why Mommy?” “What’s that Mommy?” and you wished for a moment of peace? And now that they are older, do you often wish they would say something to you? 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?
- 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 cell 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.
- 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 she mentioned once that she would like to go rollerblading, arrange a time to skate.
In order to have open communication with your children, it’s important to first foster an atmosphere that stimulates conversation. Here are a few tips for doing so:
- Appreciate your child’s unique personality. Some children are eager to chat. Others need time to open up to conversation. Know your child and don’t push her to be something she’s not.
- 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. Try to take care of his primary needs before initiating conversation.
- 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.” Even if your child no longer needs you to actually pull up the covers, lingering a bit in her room before lights-out gives her a quiet, unhurried opportunity to share her thoughts and dreams.
- Do things together. Riding in the car, having a snack at the kitchen table, and doing chores together are all good times for conversation. When people are doing things together, conversations spontaneously emerge; sharing seems less intimidating and more natural.
- Set aside time for your child. Children are more likely to initiate conversations when they sense our interest in being with them. So set aside time to spend with your child. If you’re working, set a time each day when you check in with your child and chat by phone.
- 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.
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! If you think of conversations as making up a story or solving a problem, it is easy to let one friendly comment lead to another. 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. Research in early language development and our clinical experience shows that the more adults teach in directive ways, the more passive and less social the children become. 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. Consider your own spontaneous replies as the “fuel” that keeps your child communicating.
- 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 his 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. When your child feels free to express his thoughts, he will be more interesting to you and to others.
- Follow rules of social conversations. When your child is in the habit of having conversations, you can then start to show him the basic rules society will expect from him. Some of those being communicating for a response, waiting silently, responding to the other person’s intent, and being clear about what he means and changing his 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.