Recently a friend asked me,
Susan, I often feel like our conversations with our adult kids and extended family members are superficial. How can we encourage conversations to go to a deeper level?”
Another mother remarked,
My teenager doesn’t talk. How can we get our kids to engage with others more naturally in conversations-both in our immediate family and with guests?”
This problem is not new, but social media has made it worse and repressed meaningful conversations — particularly with our kids. Sound bites, perfect pictures on Instagram, inane quotes on FB, and hurtful comments about others give our kids a steady diet of superficial tedium. They are more comfortable on their phones than in eye-to-eye contact with others.
It’s not just our kids. We adults often don’t know how to initiate a meaningful conversation. We wonder, Am I being too personal? Will I offend them? Will they like me? What can I say or ask?
The pandemic has not helped us with this problem. Our kids are on screens more than ever before. Social contact is severely limited.
We are in danger of raising a generation that lacks person-to-person social skills.
Some of us are going to be with extended family over the holidays. Others will connect by zoom. We want to have significant conversations, and we want to train our kids to be good conversationalists. How do we go about this?
1. Recognize that being (and raising) a good conversationalist matters.
Mental health experts will tell you that humans have a deep need to be known. We were created by God for community, for close relationships with God first and then with others. Each one of us needs a few close friends with whom we can go deep.
But we also need to reach out to others. This is one practical “working out” of the second commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:39) One way of doing this is by caring enough to draw someone else out in conversation — to demonstrate that you are really interested in their life, in their story, and in learning from them. We want to raise “other-centered kids” not self-centered kids.
Reaching out in conversation is not always natural; it’s a learned art form. It takes practice, creativity and intentionality. And your kids will not “catch” it by watching you. They have to be trained. In child-rearing not everything is caught. Much must also be taught. Becoming a good conversationalist is one of those things that we have to teach.
2. Ask questions that call for more than a one-word answer.
Our teenager slams the front door, dumping his backpack on the floor. Or emerges from his room after a long morning of online classes.
‘How was your day son?”
“OK,” he mumbles, as he continues to stare at his smart phone while proceeding into the kitchen for a snack. So much for quality talk.
Rarely will you get into a good conversation with a teen or anyone else if you ask only questions that can be answered with just one word.
Instead, consider questions like:
- Who is one of your friends that you admire and why?
- What teacher do you like?
- What is it about this person that makes them a good teacher?
Or to another adult, “What have you been doing lately that has brought you joy?”
3. Take advantage of family meals.
The pandemic has kept many of us at home. Extracurricular activities for our kids have been curtailed. Evening meetings have been limited. We have more time together as a family. (OK maybe too much 🙂 .) But let us not waste this time. It is a gift in disguise. We have been given an opportunity to re-capture the importance and benefit of a family meal.
Make your mealtime one of celebration. Put all cell phones in another room. (This should be standard procedure for every family meal.) Occasionally decorate the table. Cook food from another country and dress in clothes from this country. Look up the country online and share three unusual facts about it.
At dinner ask each person to share their high and low of their day. A “high” might be finishing a paper, a “low” hearing someone say something ugly about a friend. Discuss a character trait. What is integrity? Why is it important? Why do you think people lie? Where do we notice lies in the media, school, the marketplace? How can we be people of integrity?
Family meals are a gift. We must not waste this time, and we have to be intentional in planning table talk.
4. Carefully consider the guests and the event.
Several years ago we hosted an adult family reunion. Four siblings and spouses and a close first cousin and his wife. We are all empty nesters and believers. As John and I thought ahead about our time we knew we wanted to have deeper conversations than merely kids, hobbies, and news!
Throughout our weekend we asked each person to reflect on their life in terms of 20-year segments asking the questions, “Looking back where do you see God’s faithfulness in the first 20 years of your life? Later we shared the 2nd and 3rd 20 years. It was a sweet time of getting to know one another better and recounting God’s faithfulness. It was just right for these people and this event.
Every gathering is different and it’s important to think through who is coming and plan for meaningful conversations.
In this season of racial, political, and pandemic unrest, your guests will likely have differing strong opinions. If your goal is to build stronger relationships it might be best to avoid these topics for now and concentrate on the person behind the face rather than current hot issues.
In doing this you might throw out questions like:
- What has been your favorite read lately? Why?
- If you could interview any historical or Biblical figure who would you like to interview and why?
- Who is someone who has had a positive impact on your life? How has this come about?
One holiday we had a young man from Nigeria join us. We asked him, “Would you share with us your faith story? What was your life like as a young boy?”
Hearing his story was a moving time not only for us but particularly for our kids.
5. Use the “clue-in principle.”
Our son John was bringing his friend Joe over. I did not know Joe. I wanted to get to know him, but I needed some talking points. I asked my son John to clue me in about his friend. What is Joe into? Does he like sports, technology, science, music? Tell me about his family. My son’s hints enabled me to engage Joe in conversation.
If you are having adults over during the holidays, clue your kids in with questions to ask each adult. Tell the kids you are going to have a de-brief after the gathering, and they need to share something they learned about an adult they did not know. This is one practical way of training your children to be other-focused instead of self-focused. And it will give them confidence in their ability to engage with others, sharpening their social skills.
6. Create a list of good questions for different occasions.
There are different types of questions needed for different times, depending on the people gathered. If you are with people of faith your questions will be different than if you are with an assortment of folks. No matter who the folks are, you can still be intentional in asking questions which will enable you to get to know one another in fresh ways.
Some questions will be profound, some will make you laugh, and some will enable you to get to know things about someone you thought you knew!
Here are some sample questions to get you started. At your next family dinner have a brainstorming session and write out 25 good questions! Post them inside a cabinet where you can review them.
These will get you started:
- Who is someone you admire and why?
- What has been your favorite vacation?
- If you had 4 completely free days, unlimited funds and childcare what would you like to do?
- If you weren’t you, who/what would you like to be? (I wanted to play quarterback on a top college team and win the Heisman trophy, a girl friend of mine wanted to be a race car driver and win the Indy 500!)
- What are you doing in life now that makes you feel the most fulfilled? (“gets your engines running”)
- What is a question you’d like to ask God?
- Who would you like to talk to in heaven?
- Would you share your faith story with me? (How did you come to know Jesus?)
- What is a funny memory from your childhood?
Now it’s your turn! Have fun. 🙂
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