The conversation went about as expected.
“How was your first day?” I asked my son, a 5th grader.
“Good,” he said, in a monotone.
“How was your new teacher?” I asked, adding enthusiasm to my voice.
“Good,” he replied, in the same monotone voice.
I asked him to use more than one word to tell me about his day.
“It was fun,” he said. (I had to give him credit. Technically, that was more than one word.)
My usually chatty son was not giving me the information I craved about his first day of school, and I needed a different strategy.
I asked him to tell me what he did when he got off the bus at school, and we were off. He described where he sat in the classroom (one seat over from his best friend; in front of a boy who hasn’t been in his class before). We talked about when he has specials, who he sat with at lunch and what he thought of his new teacher (“She’s funny.”). There was also this rite of passage for a 5th grader: riding on the back seat of the bus (“It’s bumpy,” he said).
Getting kids to talk to us can be a challenge. Some days they’re not in the mood; other times they’re not sure what we’re looking for – or how to even have a conversation.
But conversation is key to open communication in your relationship with your child, and laying the foundation when children are young will cultivate a habit that pays back big-time as they grow older and navigate the teen years.
While conversation comes naturally for some children, others need to develop it as they do any skill: through practice. As parents, we can be readily available and willing teachers.
Listen for opportunities to chat.
Sometimes kids offer up cues and conversation starters that we miss or ignore because we’re focused on our own “to-do” lists. Being present in their presence helps us be more aware of potential conversation starters. Being available when they give us an opening shows a child she can count on you to talk when she needs you, not just when you want to know about her school day.
Give it time.
When you ask a child a question, give him time to answer. A child may need time to consider his opinion on a particular topic. Riddling him with questions in an attempt to elicit an answer can make him feel overwhelmed and cause him to shut down.
Resist the urge to jump in and “fix it.”
We validate feelings when we say, “It sounds as if you felt left out when your friends didn’t invite you to play four-square on the playground.” We can then help him brainstorm solutions. Ultimately, our children will be more likely to seek us out with their problems if we have shared helpful, non-judgmental conversation on issues in the past.
Make time to connect every day.
Your child may not turn to you for advice at every opportunity, but if you establish a regular routine, she’ll be more ready to turn to you in the times she really needs your feedback. Whether it’s over dinner or during a car ride to a music lesson, take time to talk about the day – yours and hers! By sharing something about our own day, and asking about hers, we model conversation habits.
Allow for indirect communication.
Take a car ride, go for a walk, fold laundry together. Children often feel less intimidated when they’re not talking face-to-face.
Don’t talk, listen.
Ask questions such as “How did that make you feel?” or “How do you think you could handle it if you feel left out on the playground again?” gives a child the opportunity to express her opinion and sort through an event without feeling as if every conversation will lead to a lecture from mom or dad.
Studies show that conversation is key to language development. In addition, being able to hold a conversation is essential to developing meaningful relationships. And that’s something that’s worth talking about.
Karen Nerney has been a communications specialist with Capital Region BOCES since 2011. Her teenage daughters, ages 18 and 16, would find it hard to believe their brother, 9, could ever run out of things to say.