At the picnic table, with my family, in conversation. That’s where, as a young child, I began to piece together what the big world beyond my small world was all about.
I learned about friendship as we sat with friends and relatives before dinner. My parents often invited the kids to be with them, especially at the beginning of the evening. I could see the tension in my parents’ lives melt away as they bantered about mutual friends and goings-on in the community. They made us feel special as they boasted about our interests and accomplishments.
I learned about family. My parents would discuss their sometimes strained relationship with my dad’s parents. Would we spend Thanksgiving with them or not? What would we do because we wanted to, and what would we do because we felt we had to, in order to maintain family bonds? I began to engage with philosophy, third grade style. I remember talking about my third grade teachers aphorism: “Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.” Was that true?
I learned about politics. My dad with his strident conservatism and my mom with her classical liberalism didn’t usually clash directly. Rather, in conversation, they offered alternative visions and invited us kids to consider important questions. They treated us like we were much older than we were, capable of understanding ideas like liberty and equality.
Conversation: The crucible of learning and friendship
Conversation is the crucible of learning and friendship. Take a moment to imagine your child 30 years from now, when they’re 35 or 36. How strong will their relationships be? What will they be learning, and from whom? What are they going to care deeply about? The answers to these questions are going to have a lot to do with their desire and capacity for conversation.1
How sacred and precious is space for conversation. And for many of us, how difficult it is to find that space in our lives.
Make no mistake about it: You cannot enjoy great conversations with your child—and build their capacity for conversation— unless you make enough space in your family’s life for conversation to be sparked, to grow, to wander to the place where it can produce its magical feelings and insights, and finally come to some sort of conclusion.
If you are like most adults, you’ve got two problems. First, you’re running around pretty hard. You’ve got a lot on your mind. You’ve got places to go, and lots of balls to keep in the air at home and work. It’s not easy to slow down and make space for conversation.
The second problem is your phone. If you’re like many parents, you’ve got it with you nearly all the time. It’s got hooks into your brain. It’s really hard to leave it alone for a good chunk of time, the kind of time needed to let conversation flower.
Here’s what I recommend:
Keep your antenna up for conversation opportunities
First, while you’re spending time with your child, stay observant and curious about when good conversation might be possible. And then, when you sense a possible moment—in the car, at the dinner table, walking down the street—you’ve got to assess: is this a moment where I can clear your mind and your agenda for five, ten minutes so we can let the conversation flow?
Sometimes you can’t take that time! You’ve got to get somewhere, get dinner on the table, respond to someone who needs your help, meet a deadline. But sometimes you can, and you need to recognize those moments and follow through to clear the deck and make the space for conversation.
Keep your phone out of the picture
Second, keep your phone out of the picture when the magic moment arrives. Don’t bring the phone into your child’s bedroom in the evening if that’s conversation time. Don’t bring your phone into the kitchen at dinner time.
When a spontaneous opportunity arises, you’ll need to do something in the moment to make sure your phone stays out of the picture. Put it in your pocket or purse, put it down across the room, or put it in airplane mode. Whatever works.
The key thing is to do something if you do not have the willpower to resist the lure of your phone—as many of us don’t. These devices are designed to grab a hold of our attention, and not let it go. So, don’t think twice if you need to do something more dramatic, like put your phone away in a drawer for two hours every evening. Finally, I suggest that as you approach conversation with your child, try to think of them as a miniature adult, at least in the moment. They may not be acting like an adult, but just pretend they are a lot older than they are. This will help you avoid lecturing or nagging. Treat your child as more grown up than they are, and chances are they will rise to the occasion—at least sometimes.
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- This article was partly inspired by Wendy Mogul’s book Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say it, and When to Listen. I recommend this book to any parent who wants some help thinking more deeply about how to have good conversations with their children.