My initial interest in the impact of conversation on kids began with a list I encountered: The Thirty Statements Kids Hear Most. The statements were all negative, and “no” was number one. I often read the list in a class I teach called Conversational Skills. I received this note later from a young mother in the class:
Last night I was very aware of saying no to my kids. In fact, I said no three times in the first half hour of walking in the door. So I started thinking about what exactly my kids were asking for and how I might respond differently than just saying no. Amazingly, I could see that, depending on the conversation, I had options, and instead of no, I responded with:
Yes, we can go to the mall, if everyone can agree upon a time that works.
Yes, I’ll read with you, if we can wait until we finish supper.
Yes, I’m willing to play a game with you after you finish your homework.
They can be either empowering or disempowering, possibility based or disabling, uplifting and inspiring or frustrating and wearisome. With your kids about to go off to school, what are the conversations you want them to be surrounded by?
Let’s look at ten conversations—statements or questions—that you might put to work this school year. Of course, these statements and questions will change based on how old your kids are and their personalities. Figure out what works for you and your kids.
If these are new questions or statements, expect them to feel awkward when you first say them. You don’t have to say or ask them every day. Try each one out for a month, about three times a week. This will give them a chance to work and give you and your kids a chance to get comfortable with them.
1. I love watching you perform (or play).
I learned recently about a couple of college coaches who took an informal survey over thirty years. They asked hundreds of their athletes about their worst memory from playing youth and high school sports. The overwhelming response: The ride home from games with my parents. The coaches also asked what the players remembered their parents saying that made them feel great. The answer: I love to watch you play. School sports are a big part of life for many kids. Make sure your conversations about it are empowering. The statement will also work for recitals or plays—any time your child is performing in front of you and others.
2. What happened at school today?
Conversations often begin with a question, and our questions need to be open-ended invitations that allow a child to go wherever she or he wants. The default questions tend to be ones that call for assessment or judgment and result in short answers. “How was school today?” might be one of the worst. When kids are young and love going to school, this question works because they are so excited and willing to talk that the question doesn’t matter so much. Later, better questions bring better answers. Try one of these instead and see what happens:
Tell me about your day.
Tell me what happened at school today.
What did you learn today?
What did you try today?
Who were you kind to?
What did you struggle with today?
What did you wonder about today?
Tell me what you noticed on the way home from school.
What did you learn that would be useful for me to learn, too?
What fun did you have?
3. Tell me more.
Storytelling is part of the fabric of learning. A kindergarten teacher told me she could tell which kids weren’t listened to at home because those children were not able to speak as well as others. Giving kids practice at home with speaking and being heard will help them develop and sharpen these critical skills, which they’ll need to be successful both in school and later in life. Getting small kids to share the genius of their make-believe scenes is easy. Getting your teens to talk takes a little more effort and requires listening with full attention and without judgment.
If you ask open-ended questions, listen fully, and refrain from adding your opinions unless asked for them, you’ll learn a lot about their interests, experiences at school, and views of the world.
4. I love how hard you work.
Success is correlated to effort, practice, and persistence. It is not necessarily correlated to being talented or smart. Of course, it helps to have a gift for certain subjects or activities, but school—and life—requires learning things we may not like or don’t get easily.
When kids are struggling with school, remind them that they’re hardwired to be able to learn anything they put their minds and effort to. Help them by asking questions like: How might you do that differently? Where do you think you could find that information? It’s much better than giving them the answers. Letting them work things out for themselves builds confidence and resilience.
5. School is your job.
This is advice from Cal Newport, who wrote How to Be a High School Superstar. When asked what he would tell a group of middle-school kids, his response was: Being a student is your job. Put in the effort to do it well. But keep it confined to a reasonable set of working hours outside of which you explore, without structure, things that interest you.
I like this because it’s a far more powerful approach than thinking kids should love school or every teacher or every class. It reminds me of the adage Life isn’t fair, and as soon as we stop thinking it should be, we have an advantage over
6. I like you.
Your kids probably know that you love them because you tell them often. They also need to know that you like who they are—that you like them as a person and love spending time with them. If they know that you like them as a person, they are more apt to like themselves, which is a key piece in the self-esteem puzzle. Kids with high self-esteem make friends more easily, which is always a help in getting through the school year. It’s like an insurance policy against bullying, too. Bullies rarely go after the kids who have a strong sense of themselves.
7. What makes you a good student? What makes you a good friend? What are you proud of?
Self-awareness is important for two reasons: learning and being remarkable. If we don’t reflect on our abilities and actions, we miss out on being at our best. Learning to share about what we think of ourselves leads to self-confidence and being able to talk about ourselves in a powerful way that is not bragging.
8. Be your best self.
This is an idea that I got from reading an interview between Krista Tippett and Naomi Shihab Nye, and I love it. Not only would it be useful for our kids to adopt, but for us too. We are all good souls, and we know what to do in life, but sometimes an occasional reminder helps. Early on, kids might wonder what you mean, but over time, they’ll settle on what it means to them. In that moment, they have the ability to choose who they will be.
9. Notice who might need a friend today.
Being on the outside is a lonely place in life. Not being included in activities can lead to a sense of not belonging, which can be devastating. All of us can make a difference by noticing who is not participating in an activity or conversation and simply inviting them to join in. Often kids just need one friend to survive the difficult situations in school. Most kids know how to be thoughtful to others. Sometimes they just need a reminder to notice who might be standing on the outside, waiting for an invitation to join the group or activity.
10. Be kind to someone today.
Jon Muth wrote a children’s book adapting Tolstoy’s parable, The Three Questions. The three questions are: When is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? and What is the right thing to do? The answers: Right now. The person I’m with. Be kind. Kindness and compassion are something the world needs right now. Let’s teach our kids these valuable characteristics and let them be ambassadors in their schools.
In my years of training people in communication skills and effective conversation, two ideas have remained consistent: Your thoughts, words, and conversations create your reality, your worldview, and your future; and, your relationships are defined by your conversations.
Observe what you are saying or not saying to your children, and you’ll notice opportunities to make a difference.