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The One Thing You Need for Great Conversations With Kids

Having great talks with kids can help them thrive. Here's how.

Key points

  • Having conversations with kids is a critical way to support them in pandemic times.
  • When we're stressed or anxious, or our children are, we tend to get into conversational ruts.
  • Daily conversations can be a simple and accumulating way to support children's cognitive and emotional development.
Emma Bauso/Pexels
Source: Emma Bauso/Pexels

"I'm so exhausted, so drained," many parents have told me recently—especially those with kids under 5, or those working or caring for aging parents. "How can I raise my kids well, and help them thrive, when I'm far from thriving myself? How can I have great conversations with them, when there's so much whining, anxiety, boredom, and stress?"

I understand—as a speech pathologist and university lecturer, and also as the mom of two kids, ages 10 and 5, living through yet another Northeast pandemic winter. Recently, as a family, we've had to undergo two separate COVID quarantines.

Clearly, our society isn't set up for these kinds of arrangements. Soon enough, both kids and parents get grumpy, leaving at least some parents to go outside and scream. The idea of having meaningful talks or answering yet another "why" question may seem impossible.

Why Great Conversations With Kids Matter, Especially Now

But we know great conversations with kids are important, and even more so when kids are anxious or stressed. They matter in the moment—in enhancing the quality of your daily lives—and over the long term, in doing all of the following and more:

And yet, when we think about "great" conversations with kids, as in having philosophical insight, or talking about deep topics, we're often missing the point. There's no reason to put more pressure or stress on yourself to be inspiring, or "great." You don't need to have all the answers to a child's questions, or even most. Instead, think of yourself as a guide or partner to your child's curiosity.

At every age, kids are thinking deep thoughts about deep topics, in their own way. Psychologists have come to realize that children are capable of metacognition, or thinking about their thinking, at far earlier ages than once thought. It’s simply that researchers weren’t asking the right questions.

For example, even children as young as 5 can make numerical “bets” in games. Children’s deeper thoughts may be obscured by all their activity, by arguments with siblings, or even by screen time, but they are having these thoughts all the time.

 RODNAE productions/Pexels
Having a chat outdoors.
Source: RODNAE productions/Pexels

One Shift to Enhance Your Conversations

To support this deeper thinking and children’s cognitive and social-emotional development, try this one tip today: Follow your child's conversational lead.

Think about your child's talk, body language, and gestures as a thread, and consider how you might follow it. Rather than jumping in with answers or advice, or even asking where they can find answers, try simply sitting back and wondering alongside your child. Give them the chance to wonder and ask questions back.

A 2018 study by Harvard and MIT researchers found that, for kids ages 4 to 6, it was the number of conversational turns the kids had, not the number of words they heard, that most impacted their language skills. For the kids who had more conversational turns, the Broca's areas of their brains, involved in processing language, were much more active when they listened to stories, and this activation predicted their language skills. In that way, we can really say that conversations have the potential to rewire children's brains.

Following a child’s conversational lead is possible at all ages. Think less about being a provider—of answers, information, or advice—and more about being just another person sitting with your child, trying to figure the world out. This is actually easier and less stressful than trying to be the source of wisdom. It takes a lot of the pressure off you and makes the conversation more authentic and less forced—while being more engaging to kids and letting them learn more. When kids are prompted to ask their authentic questions, they tend to feel motivated and learn more.

Your conversations will be as unique as you are. But here are some examples of child-led talk.

 Yan Krukov/Pexels
Using nature to jumpstart conversations.
Source: Yan Krukov/Pexels

For a child who's just using a few words: Say your child picks up a pile of snow and starts shaping it into a ball. "How big?" your child says. Trying to understand, you answer: "Do you mean, how big can we make it?" Your child nods.

"Hmm..." you answer. You give it a try yourself. "I think maybe I could make it as big as my head, but then it might fall apart. What do you think?"

"A house," your child says, and smiles.

"Well, I don't know about that," you say, "but we can see. Let's test it out."

For a school-age child: "How big do you think we could make a snowman?" your child asks. "As big as a 7-foot man or bigger?"

"Do we get to use a bulldozer, or do we have to use our hands?" you ask.

"Our hands," your child says. "You don't get to use tools."

You ball up a bit of snow. "I feel like a 7-foot man would be tricky, since the snow feels hard to pack. But there might be a way. How would you do it?"

Notice that, in each case, you've moved away from offering an immediate solution to your child. Instead, you're engaged in the process of figuring things out together. And you leave room and opportunities for your child to think things out.

That's the foundation for talk that lets a child engage deeply and learn on their own terms—supporting their independence over time.

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