The easy flow of conversation and discovery between parents and their young children invariably seems to stop early in elementary school. Why? Preschoolers and kindergartners find it difficult to remember the details and summarize a day's experiences. Older children may want to turn off school and think about something else, be too tired to talk or be upset about something they think will upset you. And youths are not only looking for the boundaries between what's theirs and what's yours; they may be even more concerned that you'll judge, overreact or take over their concern or need. Here's what we did to get the conversation started -- and keep it going.
*Start When They're Babies
Build trust when your children are infants. When they cry, pick them up. When they babble, answer them. When they reach for you, reach back with a loving touch. When they want to crawl into bed with you, share special rocking time. Go outside and watch an excavator for a few minutes. Read a favorite story. Or play chase. Say yes. You will build lifelong love and trust with your children.
*Build a Routine
For those fortunate enough to have it, an opportune talk time is immediately after school at pickup, when the events of the day are freshest. Start as early as preschool or kindergarten. Let your children share during the drive home. You'll both benefit. You'll hear news of the day, and your young ones will have regular opportunities to practice sequencing and organizing information into a short report. Active, respectful listening will develop your children's willingness to share and include details.
*Start With What You Know
For an easier time learning about the social aspect of your children's day at school, get to know their friends through play dates. Then you can ask about specific friends and situations. "Did you and Lucy play together at recess today?" could branch into their successes or problems on the playground that day, any new students in class and so on. Pay attention to teacher websites, homework, backpack items, sporting events and what other parents are talking about at school. And build on prior days' conversations, perhaps asking, "What's new with your group mythology project?" Starting with specific known topics is more productive than the open-ended "How was your day?"
*Take an Active Role in Getting Ready for School
Make lunch together, and talk about the day ahead. Keep a communication board on the refrigerator or by the back door, and run through the checklist of homework, permission slips, gym clothes and game schedules together. This will build your children's sense of routine and readiness and provide good topics for table talk later.
Do what your children like, whether it's a favorite video game, ball toss, board game or funny YouTube video. Fun experiences build memories, keep you connected, open the door for conversations on other topics and often become perennial favorites as your children grow up.
*Give Your Full Attention
Listening and being present are important elements of communication. In an article by Claire Gagne on the Today's Parent website, therapist and author Jennifer Kolari says: "When you're really connected, your body is leaning in and your phone is down. You'll find that if you do a really good job in those moments, they will come to you for the hard stuff." If you ignore or brush off your children when they're rattling on about the latest video game or a guest speaker who came into the classroom that day, Kolari says, you're losing an opportunity to show you are a good listener.
*Utilize Car Rides
Occasionally, talking side by side behind the windshield can be easier for teens than talking eye to eye. Listen to music; share stories of the day; and talk about any topics of interest or concern. Make sure these are two-way conversations, not one-way interrogations, says Gagne. This way, you'll get much more value out of your daily commute.
Family suppers together offer precious face-to-face time to keep current on news and schedules, laugh and talk, and make plans. This is also prime time to share beloved and quirky stories about your immediate and extended family. Some families share one good thing and one bad thing from the day. Mix up the conversation with different starters; pick up a stack of Would You Rather...? For Kids cards or TableTopics boxed idea cards for families. Look up "If you could..." imagination topics and many others on websites like Six Sisters' Stuff and The Family Dinner Project.
Communication is the foundation of any healthy, loving relationship, including with your children. These practices should kick-start a conversation and spark a deeper one about things that matter to you.