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The Parenting Issue

The ABCs of having a conversation with your child

There’s an art to talking with children, and it can benefit them greatly in the long run.

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A FRIEND WAS once driving her 6-year-old daughter, Sasha, to school when the child began grumbling.

My friend had just finished getting Sasha dressed and ready for a field trip, after going through the list of what they’d need. It had taken a long time, with Sasha second-guessing every item.

As they drove, my friend asked, “What six things would you take to the moon?” Her daughter answered, then countered with, “What would you take, if you were traveling on a submarine?” The ride ended with laughter and a few creative lists, instead of frustration.

The conversation led to Sasha feeling happy and connected instead of stressed. It was also an example of how parents can have conversations that meet kids at their levels and evolve in a moment-by-moment way, as the kids have gradual insights or startling leaps.

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Most of us talk with our kids every day. We listen if they are complaining or excitedly talking our ears off. We work to be patient. And yet our conversation is often trivial or mundane. We focus on getting points across but pay less attention to how we’re talking, or how kids are hearing what we say.

But if we take the time to listen, there are so many opportunities right in front of us, not only to have kids follow directions or get answers right, but to help them stretch themselves to make imaginative connections, empathize in new ways, or question what they thought they knew. That stretch is where the surprise happens, where kids feel challenged, where we feel intrigued or engaged, and where we often end up laughing out loud.

In my work as a speech-language pathologist, I’ve found that language is a gateway to so many skills, in precisely the areas that let your child thrive. But when we leave behind these deeper conversations, we miss out on the chance to help kids truly relate and succeed, both now and in the long term.

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What’s more, those are often the conversations kids are longing for, even if they don’t always say so. All kids, at every age, want to be heard and understood.

"The Art of Talking With Children" will be published by HarperOne.handout

A GREAT CONVERSATION with your child — rich talk, if you will — offers a double promise.

The first promise is about the day-to-day. In the moment, listening and talking in ways that let children feel understood prime you to have a close, caring bond. When they feel respected, they are more likely to respect you. They ask deeper questions and show more curiosity, since they feel you’re on the journey alongside them. They’re more willing to hear your side of an argument — even if they disagree. And, afterward, you both have a better sense of where the other person is coming from, especially if you don’t see things similarly.

When you offer this model of how to listen and talk in responsive ways, children are far more likely to learn those skills themselves. They’re also more likely to open up and share more of their real passions, interests, worries, and fears.

The second promise has to do with the long term. When you have quality conversations, you stretch children’s language skills, helping them expand on their initial ideas, ask deeper questions, and make the most surprising creative leaps. That builds their vocabulary, but also far more. Talking through feelings and ideas makes them more precise: through talk, they clarify what they think, even as they learn to express themselves.

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Back-and-forth dialogue lets children gently confront new ideas and perspectives and learn to make sense of them. In the most profound ways, talk lets them map their mental and emotional landscapes. They learn where they feel most proud and most vulnerable; where they shine and where they shy away; and where they’re most and least confident in their skills. With that greater self-awareness, they have the foundation to go out into the world and strategically build the knowledge and skills they need. They’re also better able to empathize with others, as they see that everyone is on a journey.

This kind of engaged conversation is a fundamental gateway and an inborn need. From infancy on, kids thirst to communicate, nearly as profoundly as they hunger for food. Even 6-week-old babies communicate in back-and-forth exchanges, using eye gaze to respond when we talk.

On the flip side, kids suffer when they miss out on quality conversation. With the chain of communication broken or impaired, they can struggle to connect, at times in the most basic ways. Isolated, they may grow lonely, which in a vicious cycle further hurts their developing language skills.

IN MY STUDY of the “moves” that make conversations great — including my talks with dozens of researchers and interviews with parents — I’ve come to see rich talk as having three main elements. Think of it as the “alphabet” of rich talk, with the acronym ABC.

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First, rich talk is adaptive. You adapt your talk — your words and tone — based on what you hear and see from your child. This adaptation has two pieces: you shift in the moment and reflect after conversations, which lets you tailor your approach longer term. You notice what your child needs now, as opposed to yesterday, or last year, or what their sister needs. You encourage them to do the same for you. With adaptive talk, you’re primed to meet a child’s precise needs: not what they “ought to” need, given their age, stage, or grade, but what they actually do need now.

Through your model, kids learn how it feels to connect deeply, which sets a foundation for making those deeper connections with others. They hear how you’re making sense of what they say, which teaches them while boosting their perspective-taking skills.

Second, rich talk is back-and-forth. Using this principle, you’re both participating, engaged, and taking turns — or all of you are, if talking in a group. That doesn’t mean fighting to get a word in. Sometimes it’s the smallest signals that offer the most opportunities.

You might show you’re listening through comments like “Hmm” or “Oh, really,” showing that what a child says holds your interest and you want them to go on. You might point out something you notice on a daily walk and wait for them to comment. Or you might give your opinion, then ask for theirs. This talk, at its best, feels like dancing. It’s open-ended.

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This back-and-forth gives you both the chance to get your conversational needs met. Without it, you may end up missing what your child means or leave them feeling lost. With it, you’re both actively listening and open to new perspectives. The learning goes both ways.

Third, rich talk is child-driven. What exactly should you talk about? Most often, the answer is right in front of you. The child-driven principle means you start with what’s salient for your child. That might mean an idea or question they bring up, but equally, something you notice them excited by, worried about, or struggling with — or even some new skill you’ve noticed them developing.

Often, you don’t need to search for what your child cares about. They might be begging you to talk about their new Lego construction, video game set, or dance moves.

At other times, it takes attention to notice. Say your child comes home each week from soccer practice grumpy, even after scoring a lot of goals. Maybe they’re jealous of a teammate who scored even more goals. Or maybe they’re exhausted or have stopped enjoying the game.

Starting with the child-driven principle, you take the time to reflect aloud about what might be going on. Or you ask how they feel, rather than assuming they must feel good. Starting with their perspective primes you to reach them at their level and work with their energy. From the outset, they’re more interested and more likely to connect. They’re building their own self-awareness, even as you get the chance to understand them better.

These great conversations aren’t possible all the time, certainly. Sometimes, they’re the last things we have time for. But when we do make time for this talk, even in small moments, it can change how we see our kids and how they see us. It can profoundly enhance our relationships. We become more open to each other, and more understanding. We can even, in the best of times, feel inspired. What’s more, creating this foundation means that hard times, later on, will feel less hard. With that strong base in place, your kids are more likely to come to you for support and comfort, not argument.


The author is a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. This story has been adapted from the forthcoming book “The Art of Talking With Children: The Simple Keys to Nurturing Kindness, Creativity, and Confidence in Kids” by Rebecca Rolland, EdD. Copyright © 2022 by Rebecca Rolland. Reprinted by permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.