When Jesse and Amy were in junior high, I had the privilege of doing a parenting workshop with psychologist Cathy Pinter. Cathy had determined in her work with teenagers that kids need five things to be resilient in the world: They need to know they are loved, they have choices, they have influence in the family, they add value to the family, and they are included in family conversations.
“The question that makes all this happen is, What do you think? When you ask others for their ideas, thoughts, and opinions in a sincere way, it honors not only who they are, but their ideas as well. The time to get this into the set of questions that make up your family conversational practices is early, when children are small and willing to express themselves. Make this practice part of the fabric of your interactions, and it will be there during the teen years when it is even more critical.” (from page 113-114)
Still, it’s never too late to notice what’s happening in your family conversations and make different choices. To illustrate, I’d like to share a note from one of our readers:
My main insight when I reflected on how I listen is I realized I wasn’t present even when I was in the room… I found that I do an above-average job at work with my employees — if I am one-on-one with them, I listen to them with no distractions — but at home… I was terrible!
I have a ten-year-old, and I think she has benefited most from what I’ve learned from you. When she comes into the room and wants to tell me about her day, I shut off the TV, I put down the laptop, and I focus only on her. What a difference! Now that she knows she has my attention, she tells me more than ever!
I also have thirteen- and sixteen-year-old boys. Again, I noticed what I was doing. I tell them what to do and then yell at them when they mess up! I have changed my conversations with both of them.
I also no longer try to have the answer when they tell me things. I have started to ask questions to get them to tell me what they think should be done. This has been especially noticeable with my sixteen-year-old. He is starting to decide what college he wants to attend and what classes he needs for high school. Before my approach was to tell him what he needed to do. Two weeks ago he needed to fill out his two-year plan for classes to finish HS. When he mentioned it, I started asking what he sees himself doing, what he likes in his classes now, etc. We had the first real conversation ever—and you are right: if we don’t help them learn to make decisions now, how do we expect them to know how when we aren’t there?
I am far from mastering all the techniques, but the little changes so far have made such a difference.
If we can remember that listening is usually the best first move in a conversation, most relationships will benefit. Also, broad questions that encourage conversation—such as “what do you think?”—are far better than questions that can be answered with yes or no or fine. It’s almost as if the question says, “Let’s talk.”
I also recommend that the day after having a conversation that you loved with your kids, say something to them like: “I really appreciated and enjoyed our conversation yesterday, thank you.” Don’t press them about the shorter conversations, but do acknowledge the longer ones.
I’d love to hear about your experience. What have you tried to start great conversations with your kids? Leave a comment below this post sharing your results. What worked? What didn’t? What will you do differently next time?
Thanks for reading,
“I never learn anything talking. I only learn things when I ask questions.” —Lou Holtz, American football coach