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Conversations with Kids: How It Shapes their Brains and Prepares Them for Success in School

Tips for Having Positive Conversations with Children

By Gigi Schweikert
SPONSORED 9:09AM 07/10/18

Sometimes it’s difficult to turn off the TV, put down the cell phone and gather the family around the dinner table for some conversation. But research shows that talking with our children is well worth the effort. According to America Reads, parents have the greatest influence on their children’s development of language, which is the foundation for preparing children for success in school, specifically when it comes to reading. They add, “The frequency of parent/child interactions can expand the positive or negative impact on learning. Frequent, positive talking during everyday activities exposes children to more words and expressions, and more chances to practice and receive approval.”

What’s even more amazing is how our interactions with our kids can actually help form the patterns of their brain. Every lullaby, every giggle and peek-a-boo triggers a crackling along their neural pathways, laying the foundation for what could someday be a love of art or a talent for soccer or a gift for making and keeping friends.

Sound like a tall order? Perhaps, but the way most parents talk teaches children about language, even though we may not realize it. It’s called "incidental teaching." Incidental teaching occurs when a parent responds to a topic introduced by the child, and then prompts the child to elaborate or relate the topic to other words and experiences. The "teaching" concludes when the parent expresses appreciation of the child’s use of language. These brief, but frequent encouragements help children learn.

The challenge in having conversations with our children is not necessarily how we talk to our children, but how often. As busy parents, we often find ourselves frequently around our children, carting them from school to activities, but are we really spending time with them, talking, laughing and building a relationship? Conversations can happen anywhere, at anytime –  driving in the car, folding laundry, working in the yard or just hanging out.

Read more for ideas on how to have positive conversations with your kids.

Connecting with our Kids: Having Positive Conversations

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, if they have to contend with frequent lack of interest or diverted attention, they may stop talking. So, how do we stay connected with our children?

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. Show Interest by Following Up.

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

Here are a few additional ideas for fostering an atmosphere that stimulates positive conversations with children:

  • 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 them to be something they’re not.
  • Be sensitive to your child’s primary needs. If your child is starving, headed to the bathroom or just relaxing after a busy school day, they may not want to talk at that moment. Try to take care of their 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 them a quiet, unhurried opportunity to share their 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.
  • Appreciate the silence. Just being together, parent and child, not uttering a word, is time well spent. Build a comfortable relationship with your child by learning to enjoy each other’s company in silence.
  • Ask questions. Many children need a little prompting or gentle questioning to help them open up and share their thoughts. Try asking questions that require more than a yes or no answer, like, “How do you feel about…?” or “Help me understand. Tell me what happened.”

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.

1. Communicate for a variety of reasons.

Talk about anything - just 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 they just said; at other times, about your own ideas. Keep your child interacting by matching their ideas and words and giving them time to initiate and respond.

2. 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.

3. Comment and wait.

When you comment, just express what you think and see without demanding a particular response from your child. Comments are valuable because children cannot fail or give a wrong answer as they might if you ask questions. Any response the child makes is a "success" and can keep the conversation going if you follow your child's lead.

4. 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 you own spontaneous replies as the "fuel" that keeps your child communicating.

5. Keep conversations balanced.

It is normal for children to talk mainly about themselves, but it is important for them to talk about others’ ideas as well. Help your child be accepted by society by learning to talk about other's interests as well as their own.

6. Think of talking as creative play.

Unless a child feels free of judgment and failure in an interaction, they are not likely to communicate much of what they know. Enjoy watching and hearing your child create new ideas. When your child feels free to express their thoughts, they will be more interesting to you and others.

7. Follow rules of social conversations.

When your child is in the habit of having conversations, you can then start to show them the basic rules society will expect from them. Some of those are: communicating for a response, waiting silently, responding to the other person's intent, being clear about what they mean and changing their words if not understood.

As parents, we have a great 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 importantly, listen.