Joyful Musings--a weekly blog
Joyful Parenting Coaching is focused on clarity, consistency, connection, being an effective parent, finding balance as a parent, and above all being a confident and joyous parent. Topics include communication, having difficult conversations, having constructive conversations, chores, routines, family meetings, I teach parent education and parenting classes because parenting is a skill—not something we are born knowing. Get the parenting skills you need today!
Filtering by Tag: Conversation
It’s back to school time, and most parents ask themselves what academic skills are my children going to learn this year? What number concepts will they have mastered? How will their writing improve?
Not to worry. Your children’s teachers have those topics covered.
But what are you going to focus on teaching your child this year? Life skills are first and foremost the responsibility of the parent. Here are some of the key skills that will support your children’s school success:
Emotional awareness has to do with being able to identify emotions in yourselves and others. This is built in children first by helping them identify emotions and states of being in themselves by narrating their experience. That means guessing what is going on with them by connecting their physical clues with their likely emotional states. You might say things like, “You’re shivering. You must be feeling cold” or “You are pulling your eyebrows tight together. Are you angry about something?” Increasing the emotional vocabulary beyond mad, sad and glad also helps children be more aware of the range of emotional states. Are they annoyed or furious? A bit blue or down in the dumps? Content or jumping for joy? Emotional awareness can then be extended to their interactions with other people or characters from a book. You might say, “I see that Camille’s lower lip is jutting out like this and the corners of her mouth are turned down. How do you think she is feeling right now? The more sophisticated kids get at perceiving their own and other’s emotional states, the more efficiently they can offer solutions for altering that state.
Resiliency means bouncing back relatively easily from difficult experiences (Note that it does not mean sheltering our children from difficult experiences!). Being emotionally aware is a good first step in building resilience in children. Naming emotions and connecting them the physical states allows children to step back from their emotions and be less overwhelmed by them. Let’s say that a child is feeling some strong emotions because she has lost a game. Perhaps she is disappointed at her own performance. Perhaps she fears being judged as “less than” compared to her peers. Perhaps she feels disconnected because attention has shifted to the winners of the game. Knowing what the strong emotion is allows her to take an action that will address that specific need. If she is disappointed in her own performance, she might make a plan for what to practice for next time. If she feels being judged compared to her peers, she might remind herself that there are lots of other things she is good at. If she feels disconnected, she might reintegrate herself by congratulating the winners on their accomplishment. Each of these actions has the potential for helping to regulate her strong emotions.
Taking Responsibility for One’s Own Actions
A big part of taking responsibility for one’s own actions is seeing oneself as being “in process.” When we accept that as we learn new things we are bound to make mistakes, it makes it easier for us to own up to actions or decisions which in hindsight were maybe not the best choices. Parents can help their children learn this by encouraging their children to reflect on their actions rather than to just be critical about them. Children who have parents who model forgiveness learn to forgive themselves. That makes it safe for them to admit when they have messed up. This in turn aids in their picking themselves up and moving forward. (For a complete blog on accepting blame, go HERE.)
One of my favorite questions for kids is, “What needs to happen now?” Spilt milk? What needs to happen now? Lost sweater? What needs to happen now? Little brother crying because you grabbed a toy from him? What needs to happen now? Failed to save your homework on the computer and don’t have it to turn in? “What needs to happen now?”
Many parents have a tendency to rush in too fast. They rush to make things better. They rush to punish. They rush to find a solution. But given the chance, kids are natural problem solvers. Milk spills? Even a toddler has seen you wipe things up dozens of times. Next time try asking, “What needs to happen now?” Most toddlers will run grab a rag (You can help them out by hanging some rags or having a paper towel rack at their level). Computer glitches? Maybe you can work some magic to recover a lost document. If yes, great. Take the time to teach your child how to do the same trick. If no, offer lots of sympathy, but at the end of the day, let your child suffer the consequence whether that is redoing the assignment or getting in trouble with the teacher. When you solve things for your child, he might be grateful in the short run, but in the long run you have failed to teach him anything.
Mentally walk through your child’s day and consider where she could be more independent. If she is a toddler or preschooler, could she do more to put on her own clothes? Handle her own ablutions? Pick up after herself more? With training, bit by bit, a child can do all these things before entering Kindergarten with very little supervision. An elementary school child can learn to get his own cereal, make his own lunch and pack his backpack for school. He can begin to read the weather and make guesses based on the season (or check the app!) to decide whether he needs a sweater or a jacket in that backpack. He can sort his laundry and make sure it gets to the laundry room. He can fold it and put it away. An upper elementary school child should be doing homework independently and asking for help only after trying a couple different strategies. She should be getting comfortable with walking away from you physically—next door to borrow some sugar or to the other end of the store to pickup the milk or down the block to a friend’s house. A middle school child should be keeping track of her own schedule and communicating her needs (for carpooling or other support) to her parents and coordinating what will work for them. She should be able to talk to her teachers and coaches when she has questions or concerns.
The Bottom Line: Parents Set Their Kids Up for Success
Parents are their kids' first teachers. Kids who have learned these five life skills come to school ready to learn. They have the external structures which allow them to work efficiently and the internal structures that allow them to cope when things get hard both socially and academically. In the end, these are the skills that allow your child to focus more fully on her academics, so if you want your child to do well at school, don’t ask him to do extra assignments or get him extra tutoring. Help him learn to regulate his emotions, to find ways to stay positive when things get hard, to see the effects of his own actions (positive or negative), to find solutions to problems and, finally, to take charge of his own life as much as he is developmentally ready to do so.
These skills do not happen over night. The mastery of each of them represents many hours of thoughtful parental guidance. It is easy to feel impatient as a parent. You might wail, “I’ve told him a thousand times to….” Look for improvement and take heart. As much as possible, try to use questions rather than “I told you’s.” Asking, “What is the result of leaving wet towels on the floor?” is much more effective than yelling for the umpteenth time, “Hang up your wet towel!” A child who can verbalize that wet towels lead to mold, smelly bathrooms, and maybe even wood rot is much less likely to just throw the towel on the floor.
Get Support in Supporting Your Children
Parenting is a life skill. It is something we learn, not something we just know how to do. How effective are you at instilling life skills in your children? Which ones come easily? With which do you still struggle? I hear a lot of variations from parents along the theme of "But my kid just isn't ready" or "Well, my kid has ADHD, so I can't trust him to do that on his own." Few children are able to jump from A to Z, but all children are capable of learning if you break the learning down into small enough chunks.
Do you need help scaffolding these life skills for your kids? I can help! Sign up HERE for a "On the Road to Responsible" 20-minute Strategy Session.
One of the most important skills we can teach our children is how to have a difficult conversation calmly. Kids can learn these techniques, but they work just as well with other family members, friends, colleagues and even bosses.
Because we can always use the reminder, here are a couple of my favorite techniques:
1. Announce you are having a hard time with something and ask for a good time to talk about it.
Example: I am having a hard time with the current schedule and would like to talk to you about it, when would be a good time?
If you don’t want to admit you are “having a hard time with” something, alternative phrases would be “I have some questions about X.”
If the person says, “right now,” and you are not ready, just say so! (Example: I really appreciate that you are willing to discuss this right now, but I want to be sure that I present my thoughts clearly. When is another time we could meet?)
The advantage of this technique is that it assures you get the other person at a time when he is more likely to listen.
2. If the topic is a very emotional one for you—or you get easily overwhelmed by even thinking of bringing up a potential conflict—own it and ask to just be heard.
Say, I’m not sure why this is so hard for me to bring up, but I have something weighing on my mind that I would like share with you. What I would really appreciate, actually, is if for right now I could just tell you about it but that we wait a few days to talk about it. Would you be willing to just listen for right now?
Often, if you know that person is not going to immediately yell at you or start tearing your ideas apart, it is easier to fully express what is going on for you. You will be able to offload your emotion and share your concerns. Once you get permission to share, be sure to stay focused on your own perspective.
Example: I really value your friendship and want to spend time with you, and at the same time I feel like I am always the one reaching out to you. That makes me wonder if you value our friendship as much as I do. I don’t want to impose myself on you and neither do I want to do all the work of arranging for us to meet. If you want to spend time with me, it would make a big difference if you would reach out to me more often with a plan. That would make me feel that you cared. Thanks for listening and being willing to give this some thought. Let me know in the next couple days when would be a good time for me to hear your perspective.
Note that there are three likely outcomes with this example: 1) the friend never arranges a time to meet, sending a clear message she does not, in fact, value the friendship. 2) the friend responds not by sharing her perspective but by taking action and proposing a date or an outing. Take this as having been heard and go with it. 3) the friend proposes a time to meet and shares her perspective. This is not the time to make a counter argument. You got to be heard by her; now it is your turn to listen. When she is done, you can ask if she’d like to talk about it now—or if you think you are going to be too emotional, you can ask to respond in a few days. Just say you really want to think carefully about what she has said.
This technique allows you to be an emotional mess with someone you trust, while at the same time getting your position out in the open. If it is not appropriate to be emotional, knowing that the other person isn’t going to say anything about it right away can help you say your piece calmly.
3. Use an I-Statement to succinctly express your position without going into a long drawn out conversation.
Example: When you arrive late without calling to let me know, I feel disrespected, because I need that information in order to make adjustments in who is working what station. Next time please call me if you even think you might be late.
Let’s break that down: The first part identifies a specific behavior (arriving late without calling). It is important that you stick to the specific incident at hand. Do not use phrases like “When you are always late” because that gives the person a chance to argue with you (probably he is not always late). The second part shares your feelings (I feel disrespected). Note that it is not accusatory, i.e., you are not saying “you are so disrespectful.” Just stick to your own feelings. The third part explains your feelings (I need that information to do my job). This shows that you are not throwing out something random. The forth part is a concrete request of what you would like next time (Please call me if you even think you might be late).
Now, an I-Statement does not guarantee a response. Ideally, the person will apologize and next time will call if he is going to be late. But often people will not respond with more than a “yeah, sure.” You might have to circle back to this topic (perhaps with technique #1), but it does allow you to get an issue out into the open in real time, so your position is clear. That can make it easier to address later and will keep you from stewing about it resentfully.
4. Invite their feedback and use Active Listening to gather information and acknowledge their feelings or situation.
Example: I notice you have been have not been meeting all your commitments on time. I’m wondering what is going on with you about that?
Once you make the opening bid, your job is to listen carefully. As the person goes along, you may stop to recap by saying, “Let me see if I got this right.” Then identify their feelings as well as their situation. Even if they have not expressed a feeling explicitly, you can make a guess: “It sounds like you are feeling overwhelmed because you have taken on some extra projects, and now you are finding it hard to juggle everything.” Always end with, “Is that right?” If they correct you, just repeat their correction back to them, “Oh, so it is not that you are overwhelmed, it is that you feel resentful that so much extra work is getting piled on to you, and that doesn’t feel fair.” This is really important information. Overwhelm requires a different kind of solution than fairness does. Without finding the true reason, you might jump to the wrong conclusion, make the wrong adjustment and have the other person really feel like you don’t get him.
This is the best technique for really stepping into the other person’s shoes and examining the impact the problem has on them. That is going to allow you to find a solution that near as possible gets both your needs met. At the end of the day, even if it is someone working underneath you or is a child, if you do not have their good will at heart, life is not going to run smoothly. It is always better to find win win solutions.
Having difficult conversations is a skill. If it is hard for you now, keep practicing these techniques. As you become easier with them, you will find you are so relaxed in the face of conflict, such conversations will no longer feel difficult. If you would like to practice these skills or figure out how you are gong to approach a difficult conversation without falling apart, contact me for FREE Peaceful Resolution Strategy Session and we will create the plan you need.
Simon’s Hook: A Great Resource for Arming Your Kids with Tools They Need to Disarm Bullies
Last week, I gave examples of how parents can teach their kids to resolve conflict peacefully AT HOME.
Unfortunately, at school, it can sometimes be hard to use those skills both because the kids they are using them with don’t know how to respond constructively and because fully resolving conflict peacefully takes time—something in short commodity in most school situations.
For conflicts at school, I find using children’s picture books a great place for ideas. One of my favorites is Simon's Hook; A Story About Teases and Put-downs by Karen Gedig Burnett, illustrated by Laurie Barrows. In Simon’s Hook, Simon’s grandmother tells him a tale about a bunch of fish who learn to “Swim Free” rather than “taking the bait,” ie the insults, being thrown at them. Armed with his new skills, Simon is able to rejoin the kids at the playground who have been making fun of his bad haircut.
Simon learns five “Rules for Being a FREE Fish” from his grandmother’s story.
Rule 1: DO little or nothing! Don’t react!
Interestingly, when I have taught these rules in class, this is the one the kids choose the most. We practice having kids give a blank stare back. Practice this one with your kids over and over. Start by having them insult you and you showing them no reaction. With little kids, you are likely to hear something like, “You’re a poopy face!” Don’t laugh at them. Just look at them as if you didn’t even hear them. Then ask permission to tease them. Ask them for examples of what kinds of hurtful things they have heard and then repeat those things in an exaggeratedly bratty voice, coaching them to do little or nothing. Praise them for how neutral they can keep their face. Have them practice in front of the mirror. You pretend to insult them; they practice staring right through you.
Rule 2: Agree with the hook!
What? Agree with what a bully says? Yes! This one actually works surprisingly well as it completely disarms the kid who is being mean or insensitive. Let’s look at some examples:
Juan: You can’t be my friend!
Rogelio: Okay! I’ll go play with someone else then.
Do you see how Juan was gearing up for a fight and Rogelio just took the wind right out of his sails? If Rogelio really does want to be friends with Juan, he might add, “Maybe we can be friends tomorrow.” Often—even though they don’t say it out loud—younger kids don’t mean, “You can’t be my friend EVER.” They just don’t know how to say that they are mad or that they want to play with someone else that day. Help your kids understand that sometimes other kids don’t mean to be hurtful. They just don’t know how to express their emotions and their needs.
Here’s another example of agreeing with the hook:
Britta: You’re shoes are ugly!
Michelle: I know! I told my mom they are so ugly they should win an ugly prize.
How can you argue with someone who is cheerfully agreeing with you? Note how reference to a disagreement with Mom subtly puts Britta and Michelle on the same team of Kids Whose Moms Just Don’t Get It. Very disarming indeed! Invite your kids to use you as an excuse.
Rule 3: Distract or Change the Subject.
What’s funny about this technique is that it is often kids who might otherwise be socially challenged who are the best at it. Distraction works by just pointing out something that is going on in the environment like, “Hey, wasn’t that the bell?” or “Isn’t that Mr. Jones in the Giant’s hat over there? I wonder if the Giants won their game last night.”
Changing the subject works like this:
Rakesh: Your writing is terrible!
Hiren: Did you know that the heaviest dinosaur was the Brachiosaurus? It weighted around 80 tons. That’s like 17 Elephants. And it was as tall as an 8-story building! That’s way higher than my apartment. My building is only five floors high. I live on the third floor, though. Did you know that…
You can see how by the time Hiren runs out of steam, Rakesh is going to wish he had never said anything!
Kids like the idea of this technique but I have found they actually need to brainstorm a list of possible topics for what to talk about. Here are some ideas a recent class came up with. Help your own kids add to this list:
•what happened on a favorite t.v. show this week
•a book they have read recently
•anything that involves a list (kinds of cars, kinds of cereal, what they ate for breakfast this morning, the state capitals, etc.)
•a question (Do you think Mr. Jones is going to give us a pop quiz today?)
•what they did over break or on their last vacation
•Anything they happen be obsessed with at the time
The trick to Changing the Subject is to add enough detail that the kid doing the insulting totally forgets what he said in the first place.
Rule 4: Laugh at the hook or make a joke!
Most kids can just laugh. Again, practice it with your kid. First demonstrate: Have them insult you and then just laugh at what they have said. I had one kid who was really good at laughing and then following up with a blank stare. It left the other kids completely nonplussed. They really had no idea how to proceed from there.
Making a joke can be hard because it requires kids to think on their feet, but if you have a very verbal or punny kid, it could be just the tool:
Maria: You’re not a good dancer!
Mira: How did you know Ms. Kltuz was my middle name?
Kevin: You can’t play with us. Go away.
Howard: I can’t? Really? Oh, that’s right! I put on two left feet this morning. That’s okay. Just put me on the left side of the field and I’ll be fine.
This works because kids don’t know how to deal with this kind of answer, and they will let the joker play rather than try to outwit him.
Rule 5: Stay away! Swim in another part of the sea!
Stay away or swim away works well in two circumstances.
One, the kid being mean is truly physical or out of control. Some kids are just not safe. They arrive at school with behavior challenges that are too big for our kids to deal with (chances are the school is struggling, too, to find enough manpower to help that kid). It may mean not getting to do what you want that day, but recess is too short to try to argue with that kind of kid. Help your children to brainstorm a variety of fun things to do so that they have some choices away from the bully. If the bully has picked them as a target, help your kid find some space away—maybe the library or a lunchtime club or helping a teacher out in her classroom.
Yes, I recognize that this is not fair. Your child should be able to play whatever he wants at recess. I am sorry to say, though, that teachers’ eyes cannot be everywhere and yard duty help is usually spread way too thin. Usually the out of sight, out of mind principle comes into play, here: Disappear for a few days, and the bully will direct his attention elsewhere.
Two, sometimes kids just need a break from each other! Help your child understand that we all go through rhythms of how much closeness and how much distance we need at any given time. Often the person being insulting is really just looking for some space. So give it to them! They’ll come around another day. If you have the kind of child who forms very intense, deep attachments to one person, spend some time explaining that that is not everyone’s friendship style. Some people like being friends with a lot of different people. One day they will want to play with you, and another day, they will want to play with someone else. This is not personal: It is just a different personality. Reassure your child that if they can just walk away today, chances are the other child will seek them out again soon.
Kids like these techniques. Having tools in their tool belt, empowers them and allows them to deal with situations quickly and to move on. Furthermore, it very often allows the kid being mean to move on, too, so the whole day gets better for everyone.
Just learning about the skills will not be enough. You will need to provide lots of support and suggestions. You can practice them after the fact, helping your child to imagine the conversation he might have had. If he climbs into the car complaining that So and So did something mean today, ask him if he took the bait. If he did, help him figure out how he might have used each of these techniques to redirect the bully or defuse the situation.
It might feel unfair that your child has to “not take the bait.” No one should be baiting him in the first place, right? But you know and I know the world does not work that way. Surely, you have listened to a friend tell a story about someone being annoying or mean and have counseled, “That’s the kind of person you just have to ignore” or “Why do you let him rile you so?” What you are saying is Why take the bait? Children will feel more in control if they know it is in their power to not take the bait.
If your child is worried about going to school, ask what he thinks might happen and practice over and over lots of different ways he might handle it. Emphasize that deflecting conflict is a skill. He will get better and better and it and it will be easier and easier to know what to do in the moment.
(Part I of a two-part series on Stopping Bullying From Home)
I am guessing that one of your most heartbreaking concerns is when your kids get wrapped up in painful social interactions with their friends or classmates. You hear the stories about bullying and fear your kids are being bullied and that it will scar them for life.
In my experience, most of the mean behavior among kids is mutual. Sometimes it will be your kid behaving hurtfully and sometimes it will be someone else. This is not, of course, because they are bad: It is because they are still learning the skills they need to be able to advocate for themselves while at the same time reaching out generously to others. These kinds of social emotional competencies take lots and lots of practice.
That’s where you come in!
Next week I am going to go over some skills kids can use at school to smooth over or avoid conflict, but this week let’s focus on what you can do at home to help kinds with their EQ.
Learning how to be in touch with and verbalize your emotions so that you can make clear request of what you want or need is first and foremost learned from you. Start by helping your kids identify their emotions. When siblings are fighting, don’t take sides. Instead, help them label how they are or might be feeling and what they need to feel better.
Let’s look at how this might go:
George: She came in my room without asking and that is against the rules!
Anna: You, slime ball, you drew on my picture!
Mom: Anna! In our family we speak respectfully. George, it sounds like your sense of fair play and what you can count on has been violated. Anna, you sound really angry that your brother would ruin something you care about.
George: Yeah! She wasn’t being fair!
Anna: Well, he wasn’t being nice!
Mom: Anna, let’s let George tell his bit. George, you’re mad because you want to trust that your room is private. What would you like Anna to have done?
George: She should have knocked!
Mom: Can you ask her to please knock next time?
George [to Anna]: Would you please knock next time?
Anna: Yes, I should have knocked, but I was really mad.
Anna: Yes, I will knock next time.
Mom: Thanks, Anna. Now, it’s your turn. You were mad enough to ignore one of our family rules. You must have been ready to spit nails.
Anna: Yes, I was! He drew on my picture, and now it is ruined and I had worked really hard on it. That is so mean.
Mom: What do you need from George?
Anna: I need him to apologize and never come near me again.
Mom: I hear that you are still really hurt and maybe even wish right now that you didn’t have a brother, but you do, and we are learning to live peacefully with each other in this house, so what request can you make of him?
Anna: To not draw on my pictures?
Anna [to George]: Please don’t draw on my picture or anything else that is mine.
George: But you said your picture was better than mine and that was mean. Really mean.
Mom: George, I hear that you were hurt and you can say more about that, but first can you respond to Anna’s request?
George: Sorry, Anna. I shouldn’t have drawn on your picture.
Mom: George, can you tell Anna more about how it felt to have her compare her picture to yours?
George: It wasn’t nice and it made me mad. She always thinks she’s so perfect.
Mom: George, stick to your feelings right now. Don’t worry about the past.
George: It hurt my feelings.
Mom: Tell Anna. Use an I-Statement.
George: Anna, when you said your picture was better than mine, it hurt my feelings because I really liked my picture. Next time please find something nice to say about my picture.
Anna: Sorry, George. You did do a really good job with the shading on your picture.
George: Thanks, Anna!
Now, you might be shaking your head thinking a) my kids would never calm down and forgive each other that quickly and b) no way do I have enough time to walk them through that kind of conversation every time.
Certainly, when your kids are first learning these skills, it may take them longer to cool off and they may need more of your help to know what to say to each other. But the more you do it, and the more practiced they become, the more you will hear them going through these conversations by themselves.
And yes, walking your kids through these kinds of conversations will take your time—probably when you are right in the middle of getting dinner ready or helping another sibling with a school project—but what is the cost of not doing the work? Slammed doors? More hurt feelings? Yelling, screaming, threats? Punishments that take you even more time and energy to follow through on but do nothing to assuage your children’s tender feelings? Hate and resentment that builds up among siblings?
I would like to argue that teaching kids to resolve conflict peacefully is some of the most important work you do as a parent. As a teacher, I could always tell which kids came from families where these skills were being emphasized. Those were the kids who did not get bullied because when other kids did something mean or hurtful, those kids knew how to address the problem head on and to defuse the bully before he or she could even really get started.
Come back next week for more tricks you can teach your kids for dealing with mean and hurtful behavior at school.
If you yourself would like more practice with how to conduct these conversations with your kids, sign up HERE for a 20-minute complimentary Harmony at Home Strategy Session.
Using technology to babysit buys a moment’s peace at dinner: Developing conversational skills gets a lifetime of delightful dinnertime companionship.
I witnessed two father/child conversations this week.
On Tuesday, I was eating in a restaurant next to a father and daughter out to dinner. My guess is that the daughter was around four. The pair sat down, and Dad immediately pulled out the iPad and set it up for her. Dad quietly sipped his glass of wine. For the moment I will put aside my own personal rant about the blurps, bings and dings from the video disturbing my own meal and focus on the idea that ten years from now this father is going to be lucky to get any conversation out of his child at dinner at all.
The Cost of Relying on Technology to Parent
Obviously, I don’t know what their day or their week has been. Perhaps Dad and Daughter have already spent a couple hours playing together. Perhaps the iPad at the dinner table is screen time she earned for being cooperative about doing her chores all week. Perhaps they had a long conversation while driving to the restaurant. Perhaps going out to eat is a big treat and it is the only time Daughter is allowed screen time at the table.
But for the moment, let’s go with the assumption that as Dad was in his business clothes, he probably picked his Daughter up from Child Care at 6:00. Hopefully they did have a good conversation about her day in the car. But it would not surprise me if she had access to the iPad in the car, too. And just as at dinner, Dad was not watching it with her. He was not engaging with her about what she was watching. Not commenting, not asking questions, not explaining what might be new concepts.
Now don’t get me wrong. I have certainly gone to dinner when my daughter was young and brought coloring books or other quiet games with the hope that she would quietly entertain herself. Especially as a single mom with just one daughter at home, I spent a lot of time playing with my kid, and if I could snatch a moment of self-absorbed contemplation, I certainly did. Likewise, we go to dinner with my nephew almost weekly and for much of the meal he is absorbed in whatever book he is reading. That is okay with me because I recognize that sitting at the table for more than an hour—as we do most weeks—is a lot to ask of a nine year old. Nonetheless, once the food does arrive, we do get his attention and he joins in the family conversation.
Conversation Is an Art
Conversation is an art. Children need to practice it. Adults have the responsibility to scaffold the learning by helping kids structure their answers. Later in the week I saw a dad do this beautifully with his daughter. She was also around four—maybe a little younger than the girl from earlier in the week. He started by asking her what she had done during Outside Playtime at school. She answered I don’t know. Instead of letting that stop the conversation dead in its tracks, he asked her to think a moment and assured her that she would remember. Then he just looked at her quietly and patiently. When she said she still didn’t remember, he coached her: He said, “Start by saying, ‘Usually during Outside Playtime at school, I _______.'” She filled in the blank and said “go on the slide.” He praised her, but had her repeat her answer using the whole phrase. She repeated the complete sentence, and then without prompting she continued on saying, “but today I played in the sand box with Jesse.” Then Dad said, “Oh! Tell me about that!” By now Daughter was off on a roll and she shared quite a bit about her sandbox play. Clever Dad. Chances are if he had asked, “What did you play?”, he would have gotten a one-word answer.
Conversation is a Two-Way Street
Now, what happened after this conversation was the part that impressed me the most. When Daughter had finished telling about her day, Dad said, “I had a good day, too.” When his daughter didn’t pick up on his conversational gambit, Dad reminded her, “Honey, when you are talking to people, the conversation has to go back and forth. I asked you about your day. Now you should ask me about my day.” Daughter perked up and looked right at her dad: “Tell me now, Daddy!” While Dad shared a few details, she kept her attention on him the whole time.
If Dad keeps up gently prompting his daughter through having a full conversation, imagine the benefits they will both reap. Not only will he stay in touch with his daughter as she grows up, she will have an awareness of him as a person who also does interesting things and has thoughts and feelings of his own as an individual. No doubt, over the years, their conversations will range far and wide. Remember, connection is a key to effective parenting, and conversation is an easy way to feel connected with a person.
In January 2015, Mandy Len Catron wrote an essay published in The New York Times called, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This”(http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/fashion/modern-love-to-fall-in-love-with-anyone-do-this.html). In the essay she tells how she and a mutual acquaintance increased their trust and intimacy using the 36 questions from a study done in the 90’s by Arthur Aron et al designed to see if you could make people fall in love with each other. The study found you could. Carton found she did. Imagine using these questions—or questions like these—over the years to connect to your kids.
The Cost of Not Developing Conversational Skills
Now let’s ago back to that other Dad from earlier in the week. Presently he has the easy love that a small child gives her parent. To a four year old, you are the sun, the moon and at the stars all connected. But over the years, as a child makes the shift to peers, parents who have not already established conversational habits have to work much harder to not drift apart. Just because you are physically at the table with your kids does not mean you are reaping the many (many!) benefits of eating together. Harvard professor and researcher, Dr. Anne K. Fishel, points out that, "the real power of dinners lies in their interpersonal quality” (http://thefamilydinnerproject.org/food-for-thought/science-eat-dinner-together/). The more we get sucked into our electronic gadgets, the more parents have to systematically teach their children good interpersonal skills. In less distracted eras, family members looked to each other for entertainment. Card games, board games, story telling, and singing together were some of the only sources of entertainment available. All of these required families to not merely be near each other, but to actually talk to each other.
Keep the Flow of Conversation Going
Once you have gotten them to the table (and banned the distractions), getting your kids to talk to you is a two-part process. First, help your kids give detailed, complete answers to daily questions like, “How was your day?” Teach them that while that might be a courtesy question out in public to which a polite “fine” is acceptable, when you ask it, you are looking for some real sharing without having to pull teeth. Of course, for your part, you have to be a good listener who absorbs what your kids are telling you before you jump to criticize or solve. Your primary job is to keep the flow of conversation going. Use prompts like Really? What else? Tell me more. How do you feel about that? Especially in the short run, listening is much more important than your response. If you are really worried about something that comes up, I suggest you circle on back to it at a later time—maybe in private at bedtime.
Getting Creative and Thinking Outside the Box to Get to Your Kids Talking
The second part of getting your kids to talk is coming up with good questions. You want to balance questions about daily life with questions that will expand your kids' thinking. The Family Dinner Project ( http://thefamilydinnerproject.org/conversation-2/conversation-starters/ ) suggests questions like, “If you joined the circus, what would your circus act be?” As someone who long had fantasies about running away to join the circus, I love that question. (I would have definitely chosen being a trapeze artist, in case you were wondering!)
TiffinTalk—A Tool to Help
Another fabulous resource is a company called TiffinTalk. TiffinTalk creators Kat Rowan and Michael Friesen have written over 4000 cards each with a question that provides "thought-provoking, open-ended questions that prompt meaningful conversations – no matter what the age of your child.” 4000! And every card is different. That is extraordinary. The cards are boxed into groups by age from preschool through high school. Like Arthur Aron’s questions designed to help two people fall in love by increasing intimacy, TiffinTalk’s questions start out more general and broad and go deeper over the course of the each themed week. Themes from the boxes for 6-9 year olds, for example, include topics like Clean or Messy, Homes & Houses, Being More Than You, How to (Not) Argue with Adults, and Firsts. These cards are not games; each are meant to be personalized cards from parent to child and are meant to be shared in one-on-one, face-to-face discussions.
In June 2015, I interviewed TiffinTalk Creative Director and CEO Kat Rowan. One of the points we touched upon was how opening the lines of conversation on a host of topics makes it much easier to bring up more difficult topics like death or sex education. If you and your child are not used to talking about touchier topics, when the time comes to bring them up, they feel much heavier and weighted than they need to be. In fact, some parents never do have “the Sex Talk” because it seems too overwhelming—a mountain when it could be a mole hole. On the other hand, parents who have been exploring a range of themes like the ones TiffinTalk provides have likely already dealt with a lot of related topics, having discussed questions about relationships, friendships, how dress affects how people see us, our bodies, etc. TiffinTalk’s boxes of cards (beautifully produced) are complete and comprehensive. By the time you work your way through the whole series, there will be very little you have not touched on. The inclusion of blank cards allow parents lots of flexibility to address questions that occur to them, while the themes give the parents something concrete to fall back on.
Of course, you may be able to come up with lots of topics on your own. If that is the case, you probably already know the joy of having kids who are mentally present and eager to join you at the table—a daily touchpoint of love, warmth and connection.
You will never regret putting energy into teaching your children the Art of Conversation. Well, you may regret how much you miss their sparkling wit when the grow up and go away, but I trust they will come home to visit!