A few weeks back, my kids and grandkids were sitting around the living room (dated reference) and having a conversation (really dated reference). A friend who’d stopped by walked in and asked what we were doing. I said we were talking, at which point he said, “Oh, we never do that.”
I remember the moment, because real, face-to-face conversation is becoming the dinosaur of human interaction. I’m not sure if it’s an art, a skill or a human imperative, but conversation begins at home, and really should be taught at school, along with the rules of civility and all the how-tos of technology. In past generations, conversation came naturally, because it was pretty much the only thing to do when people got together.
Now, everything in our lives works against conversation. It’s a battle to find real talking time, with TV, computers, watches and all the apps that go with them competing for attention. Folks walk down the street together, plugged into different music. Families and friends sit in restaurants absorbed by screens rather than one another’s faces. On trains, buses and even in our cars, we engage one another less and watch screens more.
We learn to speak at around the age of 2, but when do we learn how to converse? It used to be part of everyday life. But these days, some, I fear, will never learn the give and take of a chat. If you and your kids converse over breakfast and dinner, if out-to-dinner means time to share the day’s events, and if a car trip is yet another opportunity to exchange ideas, then stop reading, because it’s all good. But my hunch is that too many children aren’t learning how to converse, and will become dullards, unable to hold their own in a conversation.
Want to take the conversation challenge? Plan a time when you and your kids will be completely uninterrupted for a half-hour. I know, that may be a nonstarter, but indulge me. Sit down together and pitch a few softball, open-ended questions about their day. Suggest making and maintaining eye contact when someone is speaking. Tell a story from your own day, and ask if anyone has a question or wants to know more about your experience. Push it. If no questions are forthcoming, toss out more questions of your own.
Teach the basic rules, which, believe it or not, are really easy and yet rarely respected. Only one person speaks at a time. Actively listen when another person is talking. To make that person feel supported, ask for more details about what he or she is saying. Maintain eye contact. Keep it going.
A conversation can be like a warm fire on a cool night, but you have to keep throwing in the kindling, the questions and the encouraging prompts. We adults can model non-verbal prompts, like nodding or smiling when a child is speaking, along with verbal cues, like “Wow,” “That’s interesting” or “How did you learn that?”
One website, Edutopia, suggests that when a child discourages conversation by repeatedly saying “I don’t know” to questions, try asking the little protester to move from what he knows to what he thinks, to explore out loud the search for a possible response. When a child dismisses a peer with a negative comment such as “She’s stupid,” it’s reasonable to ask that child to think about how to describe the person in less hurtful terms. As parents and teachers, we can move our children toward more effective, thoughtful conversation.
I used to tell my kids that when they were talking to someone across a table, they needed to show real participation and active listening by sitting up straight, making eye contact, asking questions and offering comments. And polite conversation demands waiting for the other person to finish speaking before starting to talk.
All of this may feel stilted and inauthentic initially, but it will become natural and easy and fun. And what’s the alternative? Raising kids whose default mode is stony-faced silence?
For we adults who grew up knowing how to talk to one another, the concept of learning conversation skills seems awkward. But it isn’t nearly as awkward as being the child who grows up fixated on screens and never learns how to walk into a room and engage others.
A further challenge, for those of us who consider ourselves decent conversationalists, is to improve. Talk to strangers — on lines, in stores, at airports or at another table in a restaurant.
As for our kids, we teach them to converse by doing it ourselves, sharing our lives and listening when they talk. Conversation is a humanizing skill. Compared with the cold, robotic beeps, clicks and ringtones that rule our lives, the human voice offers warmth and mystery; it pulls us in around the fire.
Copyright © 2017 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.