Small talk’s a big deal. Although we usually dismiss it as chatter about stuff that’s unimportant, kids need to know how to strike up, and hold, a conversation—with you, friends, family, and teachers, as well as bosses and colleagues down the road. Being able to enter (and stay engaged in) everyday talk requires manners, the ability to listen, the creativity to think on your feet, and the confidence to speak your mind.
To foster good habits, you’ll need to spend plenty of time with your child, sharing ideas, talking often, and reinforcing etiquette, such as making eye contact and not interrupting.
Also, you’ll want to model active listening, a skill your child will acquire when you (and he) repeat back what the other has said to make sure it was heard and understood correctly. Take turns assuming the role of polite listener and engaged speaker as you ask interesting questions and stay on point in the discussion. Try these tips to take chatter with your kid to the next level.
1. Crack open board and card games.
Seriously. Taking turns is a huge part of successful communication, and games such as checkers, Operation, Apples to Apples, crazy eights, go fish, and the card game war help kids practice skills they need for dynamic conversation. Plus, games can provide you and your kid conversational fodder, for instance, when you ask, “What’s your favorite Monopoly token?”, “Why do you like it?”, or “Which path should you choose in the Game of Life?” Be sure to follow up with another question (or two or three) to keep the conversation going.
2. Create a story, one word at a time.
In the car or while waiting in line, make up a story together. Each “author” adds just one word to the narrative, so you work together to build your tale; no one person should monopolize the conversation. It’s fun to see how a single noun or verb can change the direction. Of course, sometimes you just need to say “the” or “it,” and trust that your contribution is still valuable because it keeps the story moving.
3. Encourage table talk.
Family meals are a perfect venue for engaging conversation. At dinner, work your way around the table and encourage each speaker to share something good, bad, or funny that happened that day, and then circle around again until each diner reveals something good, bad, and funny.
Another option: Purchase a deck of cards with dinner-table questions, create your own cards, or use our BrainPlay questions or conversation starters. Then, stash the prompts in a bowl or basket on the kitchen table. Pluck out one at a time to ponder while dining.
4. Have the last word…and the first.
Think of this skill builder as an improvisational challenge. Here, the point is to respond to your child’s statements by turning the last word in his sentence into the first word in yours, like this:
Mom: My favorite color is purple.
Kid: Purple ponies are the best.
Mom: Best friends are special.
Kid: ‘Specially when they know how to fly.
Mom: Flyswatters are on sale at the store.
This can be tough to do, but it’s worth it. It’s creative and it requires careful listening. But kids must pay close attention to every word their chat partner uses and avoid jumping in to take a turn until the speaker’s finished.
5. Tap your kid’s inner actor.
Older and younger kids can benefit from dramatic play; it helps develop important communication skills while encouraging children to practice empathy. Role-play opportunities include everything from having a pretend conversation with a pet to filming a goofy video to putting on a puppet show for friends and family. All these options encourage kids to develop a strong and confident voice while they improve listening and master the art of conversation.