But how, oh how, do you make it easier?
Try a little something we like to call “Stop, Drop, and Roll with it.” Stop the lectures. Drop the awkward broaching of even awkward-er topics. Roll with the conversation.
It’s all about building a “Culture for Conversation” with your kids. Every conversation does not have to be complex and deep to build a connection. Every shared giggle, every act of listening, every story told builds an environment, a culture, in your home conducive to conversation.
It’s all about sharing your real self with your real kids in a real way. So here’s a little how-to so you can get those conversations with your kids rolling today.
In this age group, parents tend to drive the conversation, but kids are a receptive, captive audience. They still see you as a fountain of knowledge and a go-to for information. You are forming the habits now that will serve you later in the tween and teen years.
- Create mealtimes and bedtimes with space for conversation. Establish the routine of conversing every day.
- Use experiences with TV, movies, and music to kindle conversation. Homework can also be a great jumping off point.
Erin: While studying for a social studies test with my then third-grader, I asked him this question: “Name three ways the Native Americans use their natural resources.” This was his inspired response: “Well, very well, and outstanding.” In this case, we were able to talk about his possible future in stand-up. Don Rickles has nothing on this kid.
- Purchase a conversation starter like TABLETOPICS Family: Questions to Start Great Conversations
Erin: We love this resource. It brings us gems like this: At dinner last night, we asked the question: So what makes you different from everyone else?
Son 1: I’m handsome.
Son 2: I have great hair.
Son 3: I am the funniest and cutest.
Apparently, humility is NOT the thing that distinguishes Dymowskis from the pack.
- Sometimes conversation thuds, but learn to keep going and only laugh out loud if you can’t help it.
Erin: This is really, really hard to do sometimes, especially when your kids lob up keepers like this:
Son: Dad, that team we just beat is the same one we lost to in the first game of the season.
My husband: That’s great. What do you think was the difference?
Son: The score.
This is the moment where the parenting dynamic shifts. You have to remember (over and over again) conversation is just as much about listening. At the very least, Middle Schoolers have many more opinions about what is going on in the world around them. At the very worst, they share them with you. We jest. Kind of.
The best thing that you can do is to switch it up a little. Let them lead the conversation now. While they may no longer think of you as the Bomb Diggity of Wisdom, you’re still a major influencer in their lives. In fact, you are still the most important one. They want to have conversations with you. They just want more of a role determining where, when, and how.
- With older kids, it’s less about creating a conversational agenda and more about grabbing a moment and going with it.
Erin: When my oldest was in 6th grade, I decided to use the time in the car to get at the heart of a matter bothering me. Not a bad idea in itself, but I was so set on attacking my agenda that I started pelting him with questions right out of a parenting book the second he got in the car. He knew I wasn’t being authentic and he called me on it. He rolled down the window and yelled out, “My mom is trying to relate to me.”
- Catch them in the first 15 minutes when they walk through the door. They are ready to unload, but if you don’t catch it, they are stingy with the replay button.
- Listen without judgment or reaction. Just use “Yes, I am listening cues” like nodding your head. We love Michelle Icard’s use of the term “botox brow.” Learn it, love it, employ it often.
- In general, only give the info they are looking for, BUT always be on the lookout for segueing into trickier topics like underage drinking.
- This is a great time to set conversational guidelines. We are talking about things like: no name-calling, no bringing up old business, no using words like “always” and “never”. This is the time to start modelling healthy relationship tools. At the very least, you are creating awesome future spouses. Imagine the thank you notes your future sons and daughters-in-law will send you.
- Emphasize that disagreements arise between all people, even those who love each other. Families work to resolve conflict with open minds, open hearts, and open dialogue.
- Oh, and learn their lingo. If you were visiting a foreign country, you would take a guidebook and learn the customs. The natives will appreciate the effort . . . usually.
It’s similar to middle school, but teens spend more time away from families than with them. Between school, sports, activities, jobs, and friends, they have their own world. Honoring that they have their own life experiences and independent knowledge is key to maintaining a good open relationship.
- Honor that they have been exposed to things that you didn’t expose them to. Ask about movies they have seen, music they listen to, art they like, and books they love. They may talk a little or a lot, but these are your breadcrumbs back to them when the talking gets harder.
- Remind them that they have a soft place to land. Your words, gestures, and even your familiar home environment should send a message that your house is their safe place. If they ask you not to tell something to your mother, your best friend, or their siblings, honor that. Husbands are a whole other ballgame, but the point is that they need to know that you are the Fort Knox of trust.
- Keep it conversational rather than confrontational. Eye contact can be great, but shouldn’t be mandatory. Some things are just hard to talk about. The car is a great place for this to happen . . . especially in the first fifteen minutes they descend upon you. We are often grateful to have two hands on a steering wheel and a windshield to stare through when the kids start dropping bombshells.
Erin: In my house, we have a loveseat that brings you together but makes eye contact impossible without awkward neck angles. It’s the perfect chair for talking. My kids will even ask to “take it the chair” sometimes.
- Walking together and doing activities gets the conversation flowing.
Ellen: I have to remind myself of this constantly. I once asked my daughter to go on a hike and I learned more in that twenty minutes than a month’s worth of “How was your day?” I was longing for a flip chart though because the social hierarchy and nuisances she shared were more complicated than the lineage of the House of Windsor.
- Be prepared for conversational shrapnel. Good conversation with teens means that you are sometimes going to get nailed with things you really didn’t want to know. You are likely to find out that sweet little kid who slept over at your house for five years straight is now a social media bully or worse. Just remember that “botox brow” we mentioned before or you are going be shut out faster than you can say, “Come again?”
Were you hoping for more of a step-by-step instead of an Ikea pamphlet? Here’s the thing, you’ve got this. No one knows or loves your kids better than you. Just remember to always put on your listening ears (and face) and you’ll be fine.
If you’re looking for more resources for a lifetime of conversations, the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility has them. You can find all sorts of great ideas for starting and continuing talks with your kids. Check out this video from FAAR too. It’s a great place to start!
Good luck and just keep talking!
Erin and Ellen
This is a sponsored post but the lessons learned and the “shake your head” anecdotes are all ours. We really do endorse this as one of the many valuable resources available to guide you through the process of talking to your kids.
Check out our books, “I Just Want to Be Alone” and “You Have Lipstick on Your Teeth.”