Gail Heyman, Ph.D.

Gail Heyman Ph.D.

Let's Talk

Meaningful Conversations with Your Kids

Discuss issues that really matter.

Posted Nov 23, 2014

Although as parents we talk to our kids all the time, it can be challenging to have conversations about things that really matter. These conversations require us to connect with our children on both a cognitive and an emotional level.

We need to talk to children in ways that relate to what they already know. When children are asked general questions about their day their minds often go blank. If instead you ask about some of the specific events that are going on in their lives it can help to trigger memories that will get the conversation going.

What’s even more important than making a cognitive connection is making an emotional one. Discussions about values often come up when children are making choices that parents don’t approve of, such as spending money unwisely or mismanaging their time. The messages that parents convey during these discussions are often interpreted as criticism, which can lead to defensive responses and power struggles.

Asking questions for which only particular answers are acceptable can also stand in the way of making an emotional connection. When parents do this, children often avoid saying what they think because they don’t believe that their parents are really interested in their perspective, or they don’t want to risk getting into trouble for giving the wrong answer.

How can we avoid these emotional roadblocks? The key is to talk about issues in a way that makes it less likely that children will worry about being judged. With your words and your body language you can show that you are interested in their views, that you realize you are not always right, and that you are willing to make them partners in guiding the conversation.

Talking about the problems of someone other than your child is often a great way to discuss values without making the conversation too threatening. If you talk about poor decisions that you have made and what you learned from the experience, your children are more likely to consider what you are saying than if you are pointing out mistakes that they have made. Important questions of values also come up in a range of other places, such as books, movies, and articles about current events, all of which can be used as starting points for a conversation.

Does the age of the child matter when you're having these kinds of conversations? The principles are the same, but the specifics vary. Young children have more limited knowledge and experience so it can be harder to start a conversation in a way that connects to what they already know. They may also need help with working through simpler issues before they are ready to move on to topics that are more complex or sensitive.

Almost as soon as children can talk, parents can begin discussing issues that really matter. If your two-year-old offers to share his toy, you can ask how doing so might benefit the recipient. These types of simple conversations can set the stage for future conversations about how to consider the perspectives of other people.

Conversation Starters

What would you do if your friends told a girl they don't want to spend time with her because they think she’s ugly?

Is it okay to change the rules in the middle of a game?

If you were a parent, how strict would you be?

Is it okay for kids to tease each other about the kinds of music they like?

Check out my free app for iOS, Beyond Small Talk, which offers questions as starting points for meaningful conversations. You can download it directly here.