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Talking with Your Child

Have you ever thought about the difference between talking with and talking to someone? Talking with someone puts you and the other person on an even footing. It gives more than one person a chance to express a belief or opinion. Talking to someone, on the other hand, is being - well, patronizing, or worse, domineering, even tyrannical. So only one person has a chance.

Every child knows the difference between being talked with and talked to. But many of us, when we talk - and children are the audience - don't stop to distinguish between with and to. We respond to the needs of the moment - what must be said. As adults and parents, we feel responsible for what our children do and for what happens to them. We feel especially responsible when we have done our best and a son or daughter is not responding.

Blaming Ourselves

Let's suppose that eight-year-old David is having trouble reading. He seems to be falling farther and farther behind at school. You have always helped him with his homework. You've always gone to parent-teacher conferences. You've read to him and had books in the house for him ever since he was small. Now you say to yourself, "What did I overlook when he was a baby? I followed those experts who said that certain toys would have far-reaching effects. But maybe the toys I put in his crib weren't the right ones."

From your point of view as an adult, that makes good sense. Your experience makes it possible for you to be wise about the skills that make adult life better and easier.

Try Listening Instead

But have you ever tried to find out how David feels about his reading right now? Have you listened to him talk about it and thought what his words meant? Maybe he says that reading a book isn't as much fun as playing with his friend Tracy, or as interesting as watching the TV programs you allow him to see, or as exciting as working math problems. Maybe the trouble he has had figuring out the words causes him to be shy about reading in class.

In addition to listening to him, try to ask him the kinds of questions that may encourage him to give you specific information about his feelings. Don't wait for the opportunity to stage a conversation, but talk with him about his day at school while he's helping you put away the groceries or water the plants. With the data that comes from careful listening you can go to your next parent-teacher conference really prepared to work with David's teacher to help him improve his reading performance.

When Stress Threatens to Get the Better of Us

Patiently listening is one thing. But what can we do about those times when we can't help showing our anger in the most spectacular way? This spring Ann amazed you by going out for the baseball team. You're just getting used to thinking of her making homeruns when one afternoon, just as you've pulled into the driveway and are lifting your briefcase off the back seat, Anne and five other neighborhood kids approach you looking a little sheepish. Anne tells you hesitantly that one of her homerun hits has just broken Mrs. Gavilan's window. "Mother," Anne says, "I didn't mean to, I was just thinking about getting Tommy and Jose and me back to home plate."

You're furious - with the kids, with baseball in general, with Mrs. Gavilan, who doesn't seem to like children anyway, with that briefcase full of papers you've brought home to work on this evening. And there stands Anne, the handiest target for your anger. You explode. "What business has a girl like you, from a family like ours..." Anne is crushed, the neighborhood kids either pin you with their stares or look everywhere but at your face, until finally one of them says, "Oh, Mrs. O'Connell, it wasn't Anne's fault," and Anne murmurs, "It's OK, Mom. I'll fix it." So chagrin is added to all the other burdens of the day, and you go indoors feeling a complete failure as a parent.

Be Honest

It might help to explain yourself right then. You might put out your hand to Anne and say, "I'm sorry. Sometimes I lose my temper when things don't go according to my plans." Then find out from Anne and the others how the accident occurred. You might even ask if she wants you to go with her to Mrs. Gavilan to see what can be done about the broken window. That would certainly change your plans for the evening.

But it would assure Anne and her friends of your support, your understanding of the accidental nature of the incident, and your ability to be fair in spite of all your other concerns. And it would disarm Mrs. Gavilan before she could organize her offensive against children "with working mothers." Such a show of support would also assure Anne and her friends that you weren't just being mean when you asked them to change the location of the neighborhood game so that no one's windows were endangered.

Some Suggestions to Foster Better Communication

Whenever you want your children to know what you think and desire of them, you might keep in mind a few things that will help you focus on talking with, rather than talking to them:

  • Communicate as clearly as possible exactly what you mean. Listen to your words and think how they might be misinterpreted if they don't reflect exactly what is on your mind.
  • Listen to what your children are saying. Try to understand exactly what their words mean.
  • Whenever you talk with your children, take an even, reasonable, conversational tone. If you show anger, make sure later that they understand its cause. You can explain it without being overly apologetic.
  • If your children have subjects they are enthusiastic about, let them teach you something about those areas of knowledge.
  • Contribute your wisdom. You have had the opportunity to learn a great deal from your experiences. Don't feel put down when your children say "in your day" or "in olden times, when you were a kid...." Remember that young people are interested in how things were done in the past, and they haven't lived long enough to have your sense of time.
  • Encourage your children's curiosity, interest in discovery, and intellectual independence. Ask questions that make them think about their interests and want to learn more about them.

Final Thoughts

If a child is having problems in or out of school, don't waste time blaming yourself. Although you certainly share the responsibility for your children's development, yours is not the only influence on their behavior. Touch base often with your children about the problems they may be having. Be practical and help them look for solutions, both short and long term.

Keep in mind that you can't shield your children from the problems of the real world. Nor can you keep accidents from happening. Some attempts at good parenting may be overzealous. By trying to avoid being too protective and solicitous for your children's concerns you can help them to become truly independent people. An adult who is independent can also appreciate the warmth and support of close human relationships. Talking with a child is one of the best ways to show that you understand the value of that warmth and support and know how to give it.

Copyright © 1987 National Education Association of the United States, Stock No. 5160-2, "Talking With Your Child," Washington, D. C. 20036-3290