Conversations With Kids: Seven Practices
by Jeanette Mundy
Introducing Jeanette Mundy
In the voluminous literature on leadership there seems to be virtually no recognition of the leadership role of parents, yet parents are probably the most important leaders on the planet. The behaviour of parents in how they raise their children, and the relationships they have with them, creates the context for significant learning and sets the tone for the future of their children.
Parenting, like all leadership, is fundamentally conversational and relational. If we want to build a better world in which children become emotionally, intellectually and spiritually mature adults, then parenting, and the quality of conversations parents have with their children, has a significant contribution to make.
Jeanette Mundy has a passion to enhance the quality of parent-child relationships and family life. Living in southeast Queensland, Jeanette is a recent Ontological Coaching graduate and is an experienced and skilled coach, consultant and counsellor. In this series of three articles Jeanette skilfully applies an ontological approach to outlining seven conversational practices parents can utilise to develop loving and constructive relationships with their children.
The challenge of parenting
When I was growing up I was told to listen and do what I was told, when I was told. Conversations were more like ‘pearls of wisdom’ laced with standards, judgments and statements such as; ‘Just do what you’re told!’ or; ‘No, you’re not to do that!’ with not much in between. Don’t get me wrong, my parents were concerned about my safety and becoming a functioning adult and they did their best. I got by.
The world is a very different place today with a multitude of complex issues that parents and children are faced with on a daily basis. Technology has seen our world connected like never before. With the power of the Internet and social media, we see a relentless influx of influences that we can’t control that with a click of a mouse can take hold of our kids and before we can blink, the damage is done.
This may seem a bit like a scene from a dooms day movie but there is good news. It is our human qualities that make it possible to combat these influences while our children are growing up, and we can do that through conversation. Sounds simple doesn’t it?
Our challenge as parents is to be positively influential so that our kids can grow up have the best chance to live and enjoyable and successful life. One very important every day practice at our disposal to positively influence our children is conversations – for it is through conversations that we relate, get things done, learn to live together, learn about the world and develop new skills. We could characterize the parenting challenge as being fundamentally conversational and relational.
Part of this challenge is to develop habitually constructive conversational practices – just like a ballet dancer or a basketball player must develop sound practices to develop their skills, parents also must develop sound conversational practices that foster genuine two-way relationships with their children. In the hurly-burly, nitty-gritty business of everyday family life of simply getting things done in the never-ending number of household and parental tasks it can be a challenge to have a conversation let alone do it constructively. As quickly as a conversation begins it can end. But what are the implications of a conversation ending when the message hasn’t been listened to the way you intended or your child feeling like they haven’t been understood the way they wanted?
Kids are constantly changing and maturing in all sorts of ways and it can be hard to keep up with these changes. Parents need to make constant adjustments and changes to the way they converse to influence their kids in more productive ways. However, parenting is not an easy gig and there is no perfect parent who gets it right all the time believe me! Be compassionate to yourself and remember that you are doing your best. When you don’t feel constructive, you’re not wrong. The conversation perhaps didn’t end up how you intended it, however there is always something to learn, and a different approach.
These seven constructive conversational practices can be used with your kids every day and can last through the ages.
Practice 1: Create welcoming conversational spaces
Snatch opportunities when they come: We’re all busy. So it’s really important to find those opportunities to initiate conversations. The more little moments you chat, the more your kids will feel welcomed into and part of conversation. Finding those little moments while you’re in your ‘busyness’ can be a great start and as simple as; while putting out the garbage, putting on your makeup, changing the oil in the car, cooking the dinner, washing up, doing the shopping, taking a rest or driving to and from school sport.
Quiet conversations: These are the conversations you have without distractions. Find the time at least once a day to have a conversation without interruption. Whether it’s 5 or 50 minutes, these conversations must be uninterrupted. That means stopping everything including television, Internet and social media. It’s not the length, but the quality of the conversation that counts which includes being attentive….
Practice 2: Listen
Take a moment now to have think about a recent conversation you had with your child and get a sense of how long it took before you provided a solution, gave advice or told them ‘how it is’. When we do this our kids may think we are not attuned to their concerns. Here is just a couple of ways we can show we are truly tuned in and listening…
Positioning: It’s really important that your child can sense your sincerity. Whether it’s a 5 or 50 minute conversation, get into a comfortable position, face your child and give eye contact.
Hold the space: Wait for them to finish speaking, and then wait some more. A lot of learning happens in the space between the words and yet often we try to fill up the space with ‘life lessons’. When you give this a try, over time you’ll be surprised at the things you hear like your child’s concerns, worldviews, their own solutions to problems and even some of their deepest fears.
Practice 3: Listen for concerns
We have many daily conversations to address our children’s behaviours, but what’s underneath behaviour? Our behaviour is always about taking care of something that really matters to us, that we are not likely to be aware of in the moment, and always has an emotional component. An important component of listening for concerns is acknowledging even the most intense emotions and allowing the expression of them as a starting point to understanding. How can this broaden communication? As you allow this emotional space, the concerns of your child can start to become apparent for both of you.
Consider this scenario: A 16 year old was informed he had to move to another part of Australia with his family. The family move was unprecedented and the teenager did not want to move away from his friends and his sport. He tried to explain his position to his parents but to him, they didn’t appear to listen. The subject was closed. One early evening he ran away from home. When his parents found him, there were consequences for running away and the conversation was closed. The teenager was forced to move regardless of his reasons for wanting to stay.
What message did the approach send to the teenager? His concerns were less important than his parents and there was no space to make them apparent. Was the teen’s behaviour a way of dealing with his fears for making such a big transition to another state and leave behind his friends and the sport he loved? The teenager and the parents had a particular way of behaving that was taking care of their individual concerns and potentially neither got to fully understand the perspective of the other. Even if the move was non-negotiable, perhaps some shared understanding might have softened the blow or provided a space for the teen to express his concerns and emotions, and negotiate the conditions of the move.
A rule of thumb: In relationships everyone’s concerns matter. Role modeling win-win conversations is an important step in the development of social skills and emotional resilience for a growing child and for nurturing and developing the relationships we have with our children.
What difference would it make if you took the time before or during the conversation to ask yourself: “What seems to be really important for my child right now?” “What really matters for them in this situation?” “How come they are reacting or behaving this way?” Asking these questions steps you into the shoes of your child and can be an instant mood changer. When we want to change behaviour, first consider what might be going on and then open up the door for conversation. You may ask more resourceful questions when you are truly listening for concerns.
Practice 4: Ask questions and genuinely inquire
A really good way to keep a conversation flowing is to ask questions, then give your child time to provide a response. However there is a danger of having an expectation of a response. Kids don’t always know how to respond or what to respond with and they need time to digest the question. You may have to wait for another day. However, it’s important to be genuinely curious rather than interrogative. Remember the scenario in practice 3? If you have placed yourself in the position of your child, you are less likely to enter into and stay in the conversation in an unresourceful emotional state.
When you open up a conversation with questioning it has a flow-on effect and allows the conversation to evolve over time. A word of warning: avoid questions that begin with ‘why’. These questions automatically send a message that you might be questioning their intent or judging an action – ‘why’ questions can be conversation ‘stoppers’. Open-ended questions such as those that begin with ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘when’ are conversation ‘starters’. The following examples of conversation starters can help your child express how they are feeling and articulate their perspective. In the example above you might be tempted to ask: “Why did you run away?” While this seems like a perfectly reasonable question, it may turn into a conversation stopper. What if you were to reframe the question by beginning with ‘how’ or ‘what’? For example:
“How can you help me to understand what’s going on for you?”
“What are your concerns that I am not seeing?”
These two conversation starters could lead to further exploration about the teen’s concerns for moving, plus help to negotiate ways to make the move work for everyone. Further exploration and understanding perspectives might go something like this:
“How does this affect you?”
“What would you do if you were me in this situation?”
There’s a lot to learn in a conversation with open-ended questions and you may be surprised at what appears. Reminder: Stay attuned to their concerns and sense your emotions – they may shift a few times even as the conversation evolves.
Practice 5: Shared understanding
Many conversations can be matter of fact, daily conversing with no intent to seek an outcome. These are great conversations to have with your kids and can be laced with humour and joy. However we all know they are not all like that.
Reflection: Think of a time where you’ve come out of a conversation feeling like you haven’t been understood. Now think of a time you’ve come out of a conversation and found that the person speaking to you didn’t make much sense. Conversational practice is not easy. We all have different interpretations and perceptions that are sometimes difficult to understand.
The world is full of assumptions and we humans are really good at sending messages in our conversations that we assume have been received the way we intended. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of making assumptions and jumping to conclusions that we have been understood. A great indicator that we haven’t been understood, is when whatever it was you wanted to change, didn’t change. It is the response (behaviours and actions) of the listener that tells us if our message has or has not been understood.
Listening involves hearing the words someone is speaking and continually interpreting those words plus the non-verbal gestures. If I want my speaking to be taken on board, I need to make sure the words I speak and the non-verbal gestures I use take into consideration how the listener might receive it.
Unique to all humans is our capacity and need to make meaning of things in order to coordinate and cooperate together. Because this human characteristic is so vital to living, it’s even more important to make sure our message is being received in the way it was intended. It can take many conversations over time to come to a shared understanding. Here is a great way to start:
Before initiating a conversation to address a concern try asking yourself these questions:
“What is the reason I want this conversation?”
“Is there a particular outcome I am wanting, and what is that?”
“How can I make sure my message is clear and as I intend it?”
When these points become clear, you will enter into the conversation from a more resourceful emotional space, and its more likely you will be heard the way you intended. Gaining your own clarity first, will help your child understand why you are having the conversation in the first place, which can place them in a better emotional conversational space. On the flip side, when you role model these practices, you teach your children to be great conversationalists.
Accusations and emotions such as anger and frustration shut down the conversation and negate the sharing of perspectives that might just have some deeper underlying issues at play. Keep the conversation open by gaining clarity and shared understanding, and remember Practice 3, listen for concerns.
Practice 6: Choose your mood
Ontological coaches are aware that the right conversation in the wrong mood is the wrong conversation.
Why does mood matter? Because moods and emotions continually shape our perceptions and behaviours. You may be annoyed, frustrated or hurt, but going into a conversation in these moods with a harsh tone can rapidly throw you and your child into combat, which shuts down any chance of shared understanding. Shared understanding allows both parent and child to work through the concern calmly, and ultimately come to a resolution. Try to clearly identify your own moods then go into the conversation with a healthy dose of curiosity about what might be sitting behind the problem or behaviour. Remember Practice 2, listen and hold the space.
Practice 7: Build trust
Trust is the glue that holds relationships together. It is about feeling cared for, which includes feeling treated fairly and listened to.
When we trust someone, we believe (sometimes unconsciously) that they are likely to take care of our concerns. Trust emerges from the myriad of conversations we have with our children. It means making sure we are keeping our promises and letting them know in all sorts of ways that they are loved. It also means setting and maintaining behavioural boundaries and ensuring consistency in what you insist is important so your expectations are clear.
Because trust emerges from how we converse and relate everyday dealings with our children, it requires commitment and ongoing practice. In a moment without notice it can be compromised, with one harsh word, or one gesture that sends the wrong message. When our children trust us they will be more likely to come to us with their concerns.
When you apply the first 6 practices consistently, you will start to show up as someone your children can come to when they have a problem. Your child will strongly believe you are genuine in what you say and are attuned to their concerns. Building a strong foundation for trust requires leading by example.
Being involved in conversations with genuine concern will strengthen connections, send a beautiful message and illuminate the inner being of your child.
The seven practices are your key to better relationships with your kids.
Applying these practices can improve your chances of engaging with, and developing open relationships that equip you to help your child combat the myriad of issues they face in this face-paced world.
I wish you all the best.
Jeanette can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org