The way you talk to your kids has a significant impact on whether they’ll listen and, more importantly perhaps, whether they’ll answer questions. This is doubly true when conversations turn toward more difficult issues. And though it may be tempting for parents to attribute silence to a lack of thoughts, the truth is that kids have lots of thoughts (not all profound) on lots of issues and on their own lives. This is why the say the darndest things and why many of those darned things offer real insight into their internal lives. Getting those gems out of kid is all about establishing a dialogue, which is no easy task. If what you say goes completely over a child’s head, the potential to learn and grow is lost. If you over-simplify a conversation, messages get crossed. Parents should strive to be direct and specific when talking to kids, but also to always be careful to tailor the conversation to help them best learn.
Here’s what researchers, scientists, and experts recommend for talking to kids.
Talking Rule #1: Listen About School
- If your child has problems with a teacher, listen to their complaints, acknowledge their feelings, and stay neutral when talking about the teacher. This will help build trust and strengthen their gut reflex. When you finally speak to the teacher in person, stay neutral with them, too.
- Look for signs of anxiety before the school year and address them. Whether or not your kids show signs of worry, spending at least a week preparing for the school year with your child — including making them more familiar with the school itself — will go far.
- After school, hug your child when you pick them up and observe rather than interrogate. Your kid is more likely to open up if they don’t feel badgered and you seem genuinely happy to hear about their day.
Talking Rule #2: Respect Failure
- Discuss new tasks and commitments with your child to help them understand that overcoming obstacles is necessary to learning while quitting is the easy way out.
- If they want to quit, remind them they originally wanted to try. Quitting only gets easier the more they do it.
- Don’t tell your kid to not feel bad after they fail. Research says people who distance themselves from failures do not improve, while those who let the pain in learn and improve.
- Let your kid dwell on their failures for a small amount of time. They’re more likely to try harder the next time around as they don’t want to experience those emotions again.
- Take a deep breath and move on. How you react to failure will influence how your child will deal with it, whether they learn a lesson, get on with life, or get aggravated.
- If you don’t know why something didn’t work out, say “I don’t know,” then find the answer with them. Helping your child research facts instills confidence and helps them communicate what they learn.
Talking Rule #3: Address Questions About Identity
- Have a conversation with your child about race. Children are exposed to racialized rhetoric at a younger age than many parents realize.
- Don’t avoid talking about any and all aspects of race with your kids. Research says acknowledging differences between races will help children better understand worldwide issues and real-life experience could be the most impactful narrative on your child.
- Avoid saying “we are all equal,” even if that’s the point you’re trying to make. The phrase is extremely vague to children.
- Talk about race with your kids early and often. Research finds that waiting, or neglecting, to have this conversation can lead to kids drawing their own conclusions about people of color.
Talking Rule #4: Acknowledge Fears
- Offer firm reassurance that you will keep them safe no matter what.
- Stay away from frightening words when describing weather events. Abstract words allow them to fill in the gaps of knowledge with frightening thoughts.
- Comfort your child when they have nightmares. Coddle them and reassure them everything is okay.
- Honor belief and to let children know everyone is afraid of something.
- Tell the kid what frightens you, say that you’re afraid of something, and then immediately explain that it isn’t real.
- Ask where the fear is coming from in order to create a dialogue about more underlying fears.