By Robin Stephens
Are you ever curious about how your child engages in conversations with adults when you are not around?
Watching your child engage in conversation with a new adult acquaintance can be a ringside seat to varying degrees of parental embarrassment. How many of us have seen our gregarious, intelligent, well-mannered child take cover behind our skirt or pant leg with the prospect of being introduced to a new adult? We watch with a measure of horror as our bright verbose adolescent turns into a down cast gazed mumbler when meeting a business acquaintance.
Yet, there are those children who seem to have mastered the art of conversation. They are polite, engaging, and good listeners. They also seem to have an innate ability to communicate. If that doesn’t seem to be your child or you (many adults even have moments of trepidation in high-pressure business and social situations), there is no need to fear. Being a good conversationalist is more skill than art. Dedicated practice goes a long way in equipping your child with the right tools to hold their own in conversations. It also does a lot to improve family life.
Evaluate Your Family Interpersonal Communication Style
Is making a comment at your family dinner table analogous to the battle for the last piece of warm garlic bread? Does an urgency to speak preempt otherwise civil behavior? If so, it may be time to examine the lessons your children are learning about conversation in your home. Many skills in your family are more “caught than taught”. Taking inventory of the ways we communicate in our homes is certain to reveal areas where we can begin to cultivate conversational skills in our children.
Talk to Your Children
Opposed to talking “over” or “at” your children, talk to them. Modeling good conversational skills is the most important thing parents can do with and for their children. This does require the same level of niceties reserved for the adult-like public-at-large.
Practice Active Listening
Be aware of the temptation to ignore your child during conversations in order to respond to other adults. Carrying on conversations (literally) over the heads of children dying for attention will result in them disengaging from the dialog. This can establish a pattern where your child is conditioned to turn off or tune out when adults are present. It is little wonder that Aunt Carol’s long-awaited reunion after 6 years is greeted with apparent apathy by your eight year-old. Keep your children dialed in to family conversations. This automatically occurs when you are “present” when they speak. Knowing that you value what they have to say provides the emotional currency that leads to confidence in conversing with people outside the family. When they are with you, make communication with them a priority.
Beware of Interrupting
The above scenario also reinforces the fact that a child must forcefully interrupt his parents to get their attention. This is a family legacy that is carried outside the home with peers. Conversely, parents who interrupt their children are bound to strengthen this behavior in their child.
Reinforce the Importance of Dialog Versus Monologue
As parents it is easy to talk “at” our children. Our intentions may be good, but our five-minute diatribe about the frustration du jour may not aid in our quest to teach our kids great conversational skills. Communication is a two-way street. Helping children recognize the healthy give-and-take rhythm of conversation will aid in making them skilled conversationalists.
Asking the right kinds of questions is an important part of the conversational skill arsenal for children and for parents. Truly communicating with our children takes more than questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no response; the same is true in casual conversation. Questions beginning with: what, how, why, or when are the most likely catalysts for conversation starters. As parents, when we model this kind of questioning for our children, not only are we getting to know and understand them better, we are also aiding them in understanding how to navigate social encounters outside the home.
Teach the Importance of Body Language
Teaching the importance of body language can be a fun exercise with your kids. Spending time exploring different scenarios allows children to experience what good and bad body language looks like. More importantly, they will experience how it feels. This is an especially good exercise for middle school-aged kids and older. The importance of eye contact, facial expression, gestures, and body position not only teaches them about how they need to behave in order to make a favorable expression, it also supports them in learning to read the physical cues in others. This ability seems to be lacking in many youth as they turn more and more to social media versus live bodies in their communication interactions. Body language awareness also helps them “clue-in” to others. As they become more attentive to the physical environment, they will also experience empathy, helping them tune in to the moods of others. This can aid them as they seek to determine interests or common ground with new acquaintances.
Prep for Success – Practice, Practice, Practice
Take opportunities at the dinner table, in the car, or at bedtime to practice for real-life scenarios. Practice can definitely take some of the uncertainty out of the situation for an anxious child. One great way to build confidence is to prep for a certain event. If your child has a piano recital next week, use that opportunity to explore appropriate responses and conversation starters. Coaching your child to ask good questions, to be a good listener, and to be aware of how they present themselves to others will have a profound impact on their experience.
Once you notice the initial nail-biting encounters begin to lessen, it’s time to move on to intermediate conversational skills. At that point, it is a refresher course for the entire family:
Don’t contradict, especially if it is not important.
Avoid unnecessary details.
Don’t always be the hero of your story.
Speak about a subject of mutual interest.
And, cultivate tact.
Helping our kids become good conversationalists goes hand-in-hand with a home environment that encourages and demons.
Robin Stephens of The Growing Room Academy holds a bachelor’s degree in Human Development and Family Studies with a focus on early childhood/ adolescent development, family systems, and socio-cultural perspectives of the family. As a Certified Simplicity Parenting Coach©, Robin provides personal family coaching and facilitates parenting workshops for schools and parent organizations. She also is involved in youth advocacy organizations providing support for LGBTQ youth and their families.