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The Informed Parent

The Art of Talking With Children

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Oct. 07, 2002

Recently I had the pleasure of entertaining a young couple and their infant twins. They encouraged me to hold the babies. As I rocked each little girl, I visited with her. I talked to her about her actions. “Oh, look at you wiggling those arms of yours.” I visited with her about our surroundings. “Listen to those birds singing. Hear their pretty songs.”

I was unconscious of my conversation until the babies’ dad said, “I’ll bet you talked to your kids that way when they were babies, didn’t you?” I agreed that I had.

Talking with children begins in infancy and continues throughout their development. Sometimes parents lament that their children don’t want to talk to them, that they’d rather watch TV or play on the computer. All children want to visit and be listened to. The art of talking with children may take some practice, but when the skills are learned, most children will choose a conversation with a caring adult over TV and the computer any time.

A Two-Part Process

The art of talking with children is a two-part process--listening and talking. One of the greatest forms of caring is to listen to another. When we listen to our children, we learn about their interests and their concerns. When we listen without judgment and without the need to “teach and preach”, our children tell us about who they are, how they feel, and what they want or need.

Listening takes practice. As parents we are eager to tell our children about how to best live their lives. Too often our comments to them are based on what we think rather than in response to their words.

Recently I was in the grocery store, and I heard a child say, “What’s that?” She was pointing at an eggplant. Her parent said, “You wouldn’t like that. It doesn’t taste good, and I’m tired of buying things that you don’t eat.” The opportunity for conversation was lost. The child didn’t learn that the vegetable was an eggplant. The parent and child didn’t get to talk about how pretty eggplants are, or to expand beyond eggplants to explore what kinds of vegetables each of them like and don’t like. In this situation, the parent didn’t listen to the child’s question. She responded from her own emotional state.

Three suggestions can assist parents in becoming effective listeners:

  1. Know that your child wants to be heard. Parents may complain that their child talks just to get attention. Children who don’t feel listened to do just that. They talk incessantly. It is an attention getting device that works. Too much talking results in parents telling the child to back off or to be quiet. When parents listen, constant talking gradually ceases. Conversations begin taking place.
  2. What is important to your child may not be what is important to you. You may want to know, for example, what your youngster did at school during the day. He wants to tell you about the hamster that Andy shared during Show and Tell. Listen to the story about the hamster. Ask questions about the hamster. When you show interest in your child’s stories, he is more receptive to continuing the conversation when you ask further questions about his day.
  3. Accept spaces in the conversation. Often people have difficulty with lulls in conversation. They want to fill in the quiet spaces. Recognize that a conversation is made up of talking, listening, and space. Children may need to think about what they want to say or how to answer a question. Their silence does not necessarily mean the end to the conversation. Sometimes when parents move in too quickly to fill a conversation void, the child says, “Wait. I wasn’t finished yet.” Another child may not be so assertive and will simply withdraw from further interaction.

The second part of the conversation process is talking. Many times we as parents talk AT our children instead of WITH them. When we use phrases like “Watch what you’re doing” or “Please eat your dinner”, we are talking at someone. The art of talking with children requires more. And that more depends on the child’s age.

These three suggestions will be helpful in developing the skills for effectively talking with children.

  1. Talk to your baby from birth. Look at his face. Use a gently tone. Describe what is happening with his body and in his world. While your words will not be understood, your demeanor will.
  2. Share your observations with toddlers. “Oh, I see that you’re building a big tower with your blocks.” Phrases like this not only show interest, they begin expanding both concepts and sentence structure for the child. This is also accomplished by reinforcing what a toddler has said. If the child says, “Go bye bye“, you might respond by saying, “Yes, we are going to go for a ride in our car.”
  3. Expand the conversation with children. As children get older, conversations can stretch their thinking and their ideas. Let’s return to the hamster example from above. You might ask how Andy takes care of his hamster. If your child says, “He didn’t say," you might respond with ”Well, how would you take care of a hamster?” Or if your child says, “Andy says his hamster has to stay in the cage,” you could ask, “Why is it a good idea for the hamster to stay in its cage?”

The Benefits

The art of talking with children has long and short-term benefits. Children and parents who talk with each other usually have close relationships. An understanding takes form, which indicates mutual interest and caring. When parents and children talk with each other in a congenial way about everyday topics, they have an easier time talking and listening when sensitive topics, such as drugs or sex, are discussed.

When parents talk with their children from infancy into childhood, the children tend to develop language skills earlier. Research shows that children who enter school with stronger language skills have an easier time in kindergarten and first grade.

Finally, when children learn the give and take of conversation in their home, it assists them socially for life.

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