Does your child grunt when asked about their day? Do you worry that texting has substituted emotion for emojis? Do most of your household conversations revolve around chores, nagging, and scheduling?
Rebecca Rolland’s new book, “The Art of Talking With Children: The Simple Keys to Nurturing Kindness, Confidence, and Creativity in Kids” is a candid resource that addresses the nuts-and-bolts of conversation skills but also tackles important topics like empathy, resilience, and bias. The South End mom has a 10-year-old and a 5-year-old, and she’s an oral and written language specialist in the Neurology Department of Children’s Hospital Boston and a lecturer at Harvard University.
“I really came to this project knowing a lot, and learning a lot, about what conversations can do in terms of building children’s skills, helping parents and kids relate, and so on. But then I also realized that, in my own life as a parent, and in my friends’ lives, we weren’t actually taking advantage of these opportunities. It felt to me like a missed opportunity that this book could fill,” she says.
We had a (fruitful, meaningful!) chat all about it.
My 11-year-old doesn’t know how to use a phone. He doesn’t say goodbye; he just hangs up. I don’t even think he’d recognize an actual landline. Is this a problem, or should kids not even bother learning phone skills because everyone texts now?
That’s a great question. It goes to a broader issue, which is called social pragmatics, or the social use of language. It’s very context-dependent and really generational. I grew up with a landline. It would ring and you would answer it; that was just the way it worked!
I think it’s an important skill; I think that we are still going to communicate using phones. But I think it’s also important not to feel offended or annoyed if a child hasn’t learned this, just because they haven’t had the opportunity or don’t feel the need.
I think it’s easiest to [teach] through modeling first, if they hear you on the phone … rather than saying, ‘We have to teach kids explicitly; this is what you have to do.’ Especially with kids who are [older], and who can have more abstract conversations, you can have pretty interesting conversations, raising their self-awareness about these different codes: ‘Let’s talk through how you say goodbye in a text. Maybe it’s putting an emoji or by sending one last image. Let’s talk about the phone. How would you say goodbye?’
You can talk through the fact that, well, you don’t have emojis when you’re using your voice. So what do you do to make people realize you’re done with a call? [You can do] this in a playful way, rather than a punitive way. I think you can raise kids’ self-awareness: ‘How does somebody feel respected on a text? How does somebody feel disrespected? And what about on the phone?’
The book’s subtitle invokes kindness. I think it’s easy for kids to say things over text that maybe they wouldn’t say face-to-face. How did those important qualities in real life translate to modern modes of communication?
Sometimes, even just in terms of texting language, I’ve heard a lot of teachers say, ‘Oh, it’s so bad. [Kids] don’t spell things. They’re using abbreviations.’ Actually, it is its own code. There’s interesting research showing that kids who can use texting language actually do better when writing essays. They have better writing skills, because they’re able to shift back and forth. It’s actually not bad. It might be annoying to people not used to that, but it’s not something that’s a negative or a sign of bad skills … because often someone knows how to code shift between texting language and writing language.
You mention ‘rich talk.’ What’s that?
It’s a term that I adapted. There’s a lot of work in research called a ‘rich language environment.’ ... I often find that our conversations can be very logistical, very much about scheduling, nagging, whining, et cetera, so I came up with the ABCs of rich talk.
A stands for adaptive. It’s really just about being flexible and responding to a child’s wants and their needs. For example, if they’re in a really bad mood, you’re going to adapt to that and shift your talk. But, at the same time, if you realize over time, ‘Oh, they don’t seem to want to talk at dinner; what can I do?’ Maybe they like to talk more on long car rides. [So you adapt] when you want to introduce topics.
B is back and forth. I talk a lot about talking with kids, rather than talking at or to them. My book is ‘the art’ of talking with children on purpose. The idea is that we really should notice the balance of talk and silence between adult and child. There should be this back and forth. You’re both working together to have the conversation; you’re both engaged. There’s a lot of recent research showing that the number of backs-and-forth that the adult and the child have is actually key to building their language and their social skills, more than just the number of words that the adult is saying.
C is child-driven, meaning that you’re starting with whatever is on a child’s mind. It might be what interests them but also what motivates them, or even what worries them: starting with their agenda and going from there, rather than coming at them with a completely different, adult-driven agenda.
You say length is more important than words. But sometimes, when I ask my kids a question, it’s like pulling teeth to get anything back.
I think it’s very much like if you go to the office and someone says to you: ‘How was your weekend?’ And you say: ‘Fine.’ It’s not that it’s a bad question. But we don’t really even intend to have a conversation with that, unless something very dramatic happened to you. I think oftentimes, parents and other adults don’t tend to recognize what those questions are. They’re just not conversation-starters.
There are games that [I] play that can draw out some more of those longer responses … so it doesn’t feel as if we’re trying to get answers from them. Things like: ‘What was the weirdest thing that happened to you today?’ Or we play two truths and a lie: school edition. These are more playful routines where it doesn’t feel like we’re probing;. let’s enjoy each other’s company at the end of the day.
You talk about fostering children’s empathy through talk in the book. How?
Empathy has three parts, and we don’t always think about [them.] One is cognitive, which is taking another person’s perspective and actually helping a child say: ‘What would it be like to be this other person? A pilot? A teacher?’ To do that, I think about being specific with kids and thinking about concentric circles: Start with things that are the smallest and closest to them in terms of what they know, like masks: ‘What would it be like to be a teacher who might be older, who feels much more vulnerable, or might who might be really worried because she lives with her grandmother?’ … In the book, I call these storytelling conversations. … Let’s give that person the benefit of the doubt and let’s think about a story that could have happened to this person.
There’s also the feeling part of empathy, especially what I call mixed emotions. There’s a lot of research showing you can feel more than one thing at one time. We don’t always talk about that. You can feel nervous giving a presentation, but you’re also excited. We often try to label emotions with one word. Books can be really helpful, because if you’re reading about a character, you can say: ‘How did you know they might have been feeling worried about their mother, but they also felt excited to be going on this trip?’ So really starting to emphasize that we can feel more than one thing and to label those things in more nuanced ways.
The last one is what’s called compassionate empathy: You’re actually moved to take action, not just feeling something, but you actually want to help someone. What I think is really helpful is to distinguish empathy from just being helpful or kind. For example, say you bring flowers to your next-door neighbor, who’s sick. And you think, ‘Oh, well, people like flowers when they’re sick.’ But maybe your neighbor doesn’t like flowers, and she wanted you to just visit her. Recognizing that empathy is actually realizing the person in front of you for who they are and what they want … trying as much as possible to understand the full person in front of you rather than making assumptions about what everybody would want.
What do you hope parents take away from your work?
One is the idea that we think we’re having deep conversations with our kids but really, we’re missing a lot of opportunities. These opportunities are every day. We think, oh, a great conversation has to be something philosophical or something really big. You can have a great conversation about a rock or your green juice or a bug on the floor. It doesn’t matter the topic, and it really doesn’t matter your child’s age. You can really talk about big ideas, even with a 2-year-old, which I think is something people don’t think about. They think of little kids and little ideas. You can do this across the age span.
Interview was edited and condensed.