"I believe my two girls' confidence is rooted in communication. I talk to them a lot, ask for their views, and I never put them down if they make a mistake. I will ask why they see things the way they do. I want them to be able to think independently, to know their own minds, and to trust themselves." — Minakshi J., Chicago, Illinois, mother of two girls, ages 8 and 9.
Talking and listening to your child is very important. It creates the personalized relationship that both of you can treasure and trust, and shows that you care about her and that she is important to you. Active discussions also demonstrate your desire to find out what makes her tick, and helps you understand the way she sees the world.
It is in your interest, too, to keep communication alive so your child will listen to you later, when she begins to explore and experiment with more risky behaviours. Of course, the very process of talking, about anything, also furthers not only her oral fluency and vocabulary but also gives her practice at expressing her opinions, preferences and ideas—essential skills for personal and school success.
What to Expect
The natural practical and developmental changes that take place around family life during theprimary years often diminish the amount of time parents spend with their growing child. The longer school day, more after-school or weekend activities in which you are not directly involved, more time spent with friends, and perhaps expanding work or other commitments, can combine to reduce the opportunities to talk, listen and exchange stories.
For healthy developmental reasons, your elementary school child will also increasingly want her own time and space even when you are at home together. Multimedia bedrooms, stocked with high-tech equipment and entertainment, are a great attraction, and she will inevitably want to spend more time with her playmates rather than with you. This is part of her need to discover a world she defines as hers, and to acquire a clear sense of individual identity. Kids this age certainly come to resent being prodded constantly to report on what they’re thinking and doing, and especially on what has happened at school that day. They prefer now to keep some experiences personal and private.
However, it would be foolish to think that because your child seems to be more independent and appears to need you less, it is safe to let good habits of communication slip. Talking and listening remain vital throughout every stage of childhood.
You need to adjust to your child's changing maturity in order to keep your relationship alive and healthy. Eight, 9, and 10 year olds need to have their flourishing confidence, competence, ideas, and interests openly acknowledged and respected. Your child may react angrily if you push ahead with a plan and refuse to listen to his opinions or objections. You may find, then, that he becomes more argumentative (but not more disobedient). This is a healthy sign that he is learning to stand up for himself and can think in more sophisticated, abstract, and logical ways. He is simply learning how to argue. Yet despite this new assertiveness and independence (that you might interpret as rejection), your child will still need plenty of positive attention, engagement, guidance, and unconditional love from you.
How to Help
You can help keeping conversation flourishing with your primary-aged child in several ways. Here are a few suggestions:
- Make conversations a habit. It is important to build regular slots into the week’s routine for chatting and listening, so that it is a preserved and precious part of your normal lives. You can also create other moments to catch up on conversation. For example, invite your child to talk with you while you fix dinner, or while you eat yours, if you are dining alone. If she's eating separately, join her. Better still, try to eat together as a family at least twice a week, without the TV on, so you can converse more freely. Having fun as a family is a natural, light-hearted way to bond and communicate, so plan for regular outings. The bedtime routine offers another chance to chat quietly. It's an intimate time that may encourage your child to bring up an issue she finds worrisome. Television programs frequently raise interesting topics and queries, so watch together and be ready to follow up.
- Show interest, but don't be intrusive. Ask questions carefully and avoid being judgmental. "Stop trying to get inside my head!" was one 9 year old's response to probing too far. If your child thinks you are being nosy or critical, he may clam up. Tell him about your day first, highlighting any happy events or silly mistakes. Then ask, "Did anything especially good or tricky happen to you today?" which offers plenty of choice to talk openly, or not. "That looks like an interesting assignment" is less pushy than "What's this? Tell me what you're doing." Avoid trying to get information deviously — if you really need to know something, ask straight out.
- Give her opportunities to make her own decisions. It's important to resist over-controlling or overpowering her perspective. Respect her growing self-knowledge and decision-making; she should now be a source of authority about herself. Refrain from starting a response with phrases such as "Why don't you…?", or "You need to…" or, "If I were you, I'd …." Instead, try saying things like, "Is this a good moment to … ?" or "When would suit you better?" or "You could do X or Y, or do you have another idea?" These open approaches work more effectively, are less pushy, and encourage conversation to flow freely.
- Listen effectively. Stanley Coopersmith monitored the progress of 1,760 children for seven years and found that having someone there to listen was one of three experiences central to creating positive self-esteem. If your child comes to tell you something, stop what you're doing, turn to look at him, and concentrate so you'll hear the full story and any underlying message. When he is finished, check to make sure you have understood: "It sounds as though you didn't feel that was fair." Encourage your child to suggest solutions. If you are too busy, rather than pretend to listen, ask if he can hold onto the thought or comment until you can devote yourself to listening properly, and then agree on a time to pick up the conversation again.