Do you sometimes feel embarrassed in front of your friends because your child won’t talk and simply grumbles a “yes” or “no” to an adult’s questions? Do you have trouble getting him to talk? Do you yourself feel awkward engaging someone in a conversation?
Some skills in the family will be more “caught than taught,” but becoming a good conversationalist is not one of them. In fact, very few things are simply caught. It takes both modeling and teaching to raise our kids into the adults God has called them to become.
Today’s kids are less socially mature than in earlier generations. Technology has contributed to this. It’s easier to engage a screen than to look someone in the eye and have a live conversation. However a lack of teaching has also contributed to this. Many parents simply don’t realize that conversing is an art form that requires training.
Training our kids to be good conversationalists is an example of living out the second great commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” One way of loving your neighbor (or any other person) is caring enough to draw them out in conversation- to demonstrate that you are really interested in their life, in their opinions, and in learning from them. We want to raise “other centered kids” not “self centered kids.”
With spring vacation and Easter coming many of us will be with extended family and friends. This presents us with an excellent opportunity for teaching the art of conversation. Here are a few tips:
- Shyness is not a valid excuse.
Some of us are extroverts. It’s more natural for us to reach out, to be friendly, to engage with another. Others of us are introverts. We’d rather be left alone and not converse. We are shy to the core. However shyness should not become an excuse for rudeness. We must not let a reticent child off the hook simply because he’s shy. We will have to work harder with this child and it may take longer but it is crucial in raising him to become an adult who reaches out to others and is also comfortable in any social situation. An extroverted child will present us with other challenges. He will need to learn that he doesn’t have to be the center of attention and how to encourage someone else. Each child can learn skills that will help them learn how to talk to others.
- Think schedules and relationships.
It is helpful to think in terms of 2 categories: schedules and relationships. No matter what the age, everyone has a schedule and everyone has relationships. Write down questions that fall into one of these categories. Ask a child, “What is your favorite part of your day at school?”(schedule question). Ask an adult, “Tell me about a project you are working on, or “What does a typical week look like for you?” (schedule question). Ask a child, “Who do you like to hang out with at school, on weekends?” (relationship question). Ask an adult, “Looking back in your life who has influenced you in a positive way and how?” (relationship question)
- Learn to use the “clue-in.”
My son John had invited his friend Joe to come over. I did not know Joe but I wanted to be able to engage with him.
So I asked John, “Son, I don’t know Joe and I’d like to get to know him but I need you to clue me in as to what he’s like. What is he into? Sports, music, technology?”
“Mom,” John replied, “He’s into art and in fact he’s really good at it but his parents don’t understand him because they are into sports so it would be really cool if you could talk to him about art and maybe ask him to bring over some of his paintings to show you some time.”
I appreciated my son’s clueing me in and I had a wonderful time getting to know Joe.
If you are going to be with others or are having others over for the holidays tell your child about a guest and give them some specific questions they might be able to ask the guest. Sometimes it’s helpful to do this together and to write the questions down particularly if your children are young. We live in the DC area where folks are adept at creating “talking points.” We need to do this with our kids. Often if we are going to an event my husband clues me in about someone I might meet and how I can engage him or her in conversation. I do the same for him. It helps make conversation less awkward and can be the beginning of a deep friendship. Most importantly, it makes the other person feel valued.
- Create a list of good questions.
Sit down with your kids and come up with a list of good questions. You can use the categories of schedules and relationships as a framework but also make a written list of simple “Anyone-Anytime” questions. Here are a few to get you started: Who is one of your heroes in life? Why? What is one of your favorite books? If you could travel anywhere in the world where would you like to go? What do you enjoy doing when you have some free time? If you could meet anyone in the world who would it be? Why? What has been invented during your lifetime? What is one of your favorite hobbies? What was life like for you when you were my age? (This is a good one to ask a grandparent). Have your children think of questions they would ask other kids (both older and younger) as well as other adults.
- Prepare for a specific event.
Now it’s time to try this out. Discuss an upcoming event. It might be a meal with other families or grandparents. Discuss the folks who will be there. Clue one another in as to something you know about several of the people attending. Select at least one question for each member of the family to use with someone they chose.
Their assignment: Ask a question of their person sometime during the event. After the event sit together and share what you found out. It works best if you make this a discovery game with younger kids. With older kids or adults simply make time to debrief and share the things you discovered about others. You may hit resistance with your kids, but do it anyway. The more they do it the easier it will become.
- Do it over and over again.
The first time you do this, even if you are simply doing it for yourself, will be the hardest. But anything that is new is awkward at first. Simply keep at it. Keep working on this with your children. Practice asking each other questions at family meals. Don’t give in to weariness. It takes years for this to become natural for some of us. Often we will not feel like caring for others. But we do it anyway because God has called us to reach out to others. We don’t live life by doing what we feel like but by doing what is right.
I remember struggling for years to teach Allison, our first child, how to engage a guest at the dinner table. Most often she sat in stony silence the whole meal. I’ll never forget the day we had her choir director over for a meal and Allison asked her some questions about music. We watched, amazed as our daughter engaged her teacher. She laughed; she actually talked! Afterwards my husband and I looked at each other and said, “Whose child was that?” What happened? After years of repeated training, role playing, nagging, and feeling like failures as parents, we were finally seeing results. God is faithful even when we don’t feel like we are making progress. He is at work in the lives of our children even when we can’t see it. One day we will, meanwhile we keep at it and pray for small signs of progress to encourage us to keep on keeping on! Our God has unlimited patience.
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