It was the dress rehearsal for “The Pirates of Penzance” at a local Christian school. A friend had asked me to pitch in on the stage makeup and I was backstage, gleefully smearing grease-paint handlebar mustaches and bloody-looking scars of eyeliner on junior highers. For most of the boys, it was their first day both for lipstick and facial hair.
Interestingly, though, it wasn’t until my very last victim, er, client, when one of them asked a question not pertaining to himself. I dotted sideburns on his chocolate-colored skin as he asked what my family did here in Uganda. I stepped back and grinned a little. How nice was this? Back to the sideburns, I continued a pleasant conversation that left me more respectful of this 14-year-old, who two of my kids later reported had asked their names and ages.
I tried not to be saddened by the fact that only one of the students who perched on my bar stool thought to ask about the person in front of him who had volunteered to help their play. I remembered, too, that a pleasant conversation wasn’t just about teaching my kids to respond, or simply to be the talkers in a conversation. All of us have interacted with children who have a startling capacity to turn any discussion to themselves, babbling on in minutia that while in some cases is developmentally appropriate, in many cases reflects a lack of concern for others and a hyperfocus on self.
It reinforced the need to continue to teach my kids to truly “see” people—of whatever size or station—around them. We all want our kids to have good social skills, and not just for popularity’s sake. It prepares our kids for careers, conflict, and virtually any situation where they’re not alone.
Being a good conversationalist is a way of demonstrating courtesy. Self-sacrifice. Love.
So for all of us, I’ve put together a list of ideas to help our children grow into having loving conversation. But this is just to get the ball rolling! Help me be a good conversationalist, and offer some ideas of your own, would you?
1. Coach your kids to ask good questions.
Before you encounter group settings—even quietly in your child’s ear mid-conversation—remind them to ask a question of the person in front of them. Give younger children two or three simple questions to remember: How has your day been? How is your family? What have you been up to lately? Remind them to listen and respond to the answers. With older kids, discuss questions that convey concern and interest.
2. Discourage distraction.
Distraction displays disinterest. If your kids have earbuds in, are checking their phone or their watch, or are looking around, people get the idea they’re just not that into the person in front of them. Remember that a conversation is an opportunity to care for someone. It’s not about being efficient or entertained.
3. Practice poise.
Poise proves invaluable in so many settings. This prepared, responsive, easy confidence provides an unseen currency that propels our children further into innumerable opportunities. I imagine a 12-year-old Jesus in the temple had some degree of poise to carry on deep discussion with elders in the temple for two days! Gently point out gestures that might unknowingly cripple interactions—fidgeting; holding an arm behind a back; flipping hair, avoiding eye contact; swaying back and forth; mumbling; overusing “like,” “stuff,” or other kid-jargon.
For younger children, teach them the basics of meeting someone, and make it fun—even with a small reward. Hold your head up, like there’s a string attaching it to the ceiling. Look the adult in the eye, and grip their hand like it’s a baseball you don’t want to drop. Then, say the four magic words, loud enough for the adult to hear: “Hi. How are you?” Most of the time, the adult will take it from there.
4. Practice, practice, practice.
Ask children to stay engaged in conversation when you have guests for dinner. When it’s just your family around the table, coach them encouragingly. Have a nightly discussion topic and practice disagreeing kindly, listening well, giving gracious responses, and sharing helpful self-disclosure.
Part of a stimulating, loving conversation is knowing when to zip the lip! Help kids to maintain eye contact and even give small facial or verbal affirmations when someone is speaking. Teach children the connection between interrupting and selfishness—that interrupting displays our lack of value for the person in front of us. Teach questions that take a conversation further. What happened then? What was that like? Remind kids to pray silently for wise, loving words that build up.
6. Memorize verses like Ephesians 4:29 that offer incredible tracks for the engine of speech. More suggestions: Proverbs 11:25, 12:18, and 25:11.
7. Train their eyes.
Help your kids to “see” the people who serve them, and verbally appreciate them: the lady cleaning the bathrooms, the guy mopping the restaurant, the church staff.
8. Demonstrate grace.
Grace matters. A friend of mine told me that the focus of her household admonitions lately is simply grace. It’s not a bad idea to help our kids think constantly, “What does grace look like here?” If we can teach grace in speech, no matter what the circumstances, we’ve given kids a timeless key to countless doors.
Your turn. What do you do to help your kids develop loving conversation?
Poise—the Antidote to Dumb and Dumber