Two preschoolers sit in the sandbox digging and chatting. From a distance, they appear to be talking nonstop. A few minutes into this “conversation”, however, one child appears upset and moves away from the other child. When that child follows him, he yells, “Stop talking to me!” His friend bursts into tears and runs from the scene.
Trying to find out what happened in the sandbox, their moms talk to the boys together to try and solve the problem. One boy says he wanted to talk about building a sandcastle and the other boy didn’t listen. That child says he wanted to tell his friend something about dinosaurs. As it turns out, the “conversation” was all talking and no listening.
Children have a lot to say and don’t always pick up on the nonverbal cues of others. It can take years for kids to understand that they have to both listen and talk. You can help your child learn to be a better communicator by making time for uninterrupted conversation at home.
Practice conversation skills
Starting a conversation can be difficult for kids — their first instinct is to share their thoughts and stories without a greeting or small talk. Model friendly greetings by smiling, waving, and nodding hello to your child. This lets them know that you’re happy to see them and are interested in what they have to say.
While it’s natural for children to want to share an interesting thought or story they have — usually a long-winded story about a brief interaction they had at school that day — showing that they care about others’ thoughts and feelings is important. Conversation starters show interest and understanding. Try asking your child questions like “What made you laugh today?”, “Can you tell me about something you learned?”, or “What was the best part of your day?” These open-ended questions give the other person a chance to share a story.
Use the three L’s
It’s hard for children to focus when they have something interesting to share. In my work with young kids, I find that they have an easier time remembering when they have visuals or a verbal cue. This is where the three L’s come in handy as communication guides:
- Look: Have your child sit up straight and look into your eyes to show that they are ready to listen. If making eye contact is too difficult, look at the bridge of the nose or the middle of the forehead.
- Listen: Practice waiting to respond and nodding. Encourage your child to ask questions if they are unsure about something.
- Learn: Asking questions is a fun way to learn something new about a person. When your child practices seeking information from others, they learn to hold their thoughts until it’s an appropriate time to share.
Replace “I don’t know” With “I think”
When young children feel overwhelmed or unsure, they often say “I don’t know” to get out of a conversation or avoid talking. This is especially true for kids who are shy. It can be difficult to answer questions when you feel like you’re on the spot. Encourage your child to begin responses with “I think” when sharing their ideas. Learning to share thoughts and feelings helps kids connect with others, even if they don’t have all the answers.
Play Catch While You Talk
Try playing a game of catch with a bouncy ball while talking! This is a fun game that I use with my own kids. It’s easier to get into the wait-before-you-speak habit when you’re playing a give-and-take game. Make a brief statement, then bounce the ball to your child. Have them take a pause and make a statement before bouncing it back. There’s a time and place for lengthy stories, but most conversations require a fairly quick back and forth style. This game can help your child learn to balance listening and talking.
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood also does a great job of modeling the give and take of conversations by including a pause in between the questions Daniel asks. This gives kids a chance to answer and actually have a conversation with Daniel while they’re watching.
Try Continuous Stories
A fun way to practice waiting your turn to talk is by creating continuous stories as a family. My family loves playing this game when we’re starving and waiting for food at a restaurant or when we’re eating breakfast together on a weekend morning.
One person begins a story by finishing the sentence, “Once upon a time…” The next person picks it up from there and the story continues around the table, one sentence at a time, until it’s finished. Creating a story as a family helps kids learn to stop and listen, wait for cues, and then jump in with their own ideas when it’s their turn. The stories get really silly really fast in my house, but that’s part of the process! You can also try out hosting a pretend dinner party at home.
As always, frequent practice helps young children build their social skills! When you focus on helping your child learn to communicate at home, they will have an easier time connecting with their friends at school and in their community.
As for those storytellers in the sandbox? Their moms decided to sit side-by-side with them and work through it together. Acting like a sportscaster for social skills might feel a little funny at first, but it’s actually really helpful. By guiding their conversation, their moms were able to help the boys stop and listen to each other, and even work together to build a sandcastle for a dinosaur! It’s easy to forget that little kids need a lot of guidance. We’ve all been there at some point, but close physical presence and gentle reflection can help kids practice their conversational skills without interfering with their play.
Katie Hurley, LCSW, is a child and adolescent psychotherapist, parenting expert, and writer. She is the founder of “Girls Can!” empowerment groups for girls between ages 5-11. Hurley is the author of No More Mean Girls and The Happy Kid Handbook, and her work can be found in The Washington Post, Psychology Today, and US News and World Report.