I once had a job as a research assistant talking to teenage boys about emotions. Not a job for the fainthearted but I like a challenge. The boys treated me with large amounts of baffled silence. I talked to them about peers, who they spoke to when they felt down, whether it was okay to admit vulnerability. One helpful boy put me straight after a few minutes of this. ‘Miss’ he said ‘I don’t mean to be rude but nobody here is into that sort of thing’.
Of course ‘boys and difficulties with emotions’ is a well-worn area of discussion. But as I spend a lot of my day with young children I’ve come to wonder how any child learns to have a genuine, emotionally engaged conversation.
Here’s a snapshot of the types of monologues my small son experiences during the day:
(From older sister) ‘So you can be the other ballet dancer and can you wear this and don’t go over there because that’s not right…’
(From me) ‘Oh no….stop….could you just not sit there…what’s that on your foot….oh lord!’
(From best friend) ‘No….I want it….You’ve got it and I want it’
Luckily he is a happy communicator. Not surprisingly however, if he experiences a lot of talking down to (as above) he becomes quite miserable and frustrated.
Researchers on childhood communication often refer to a very well known piece of work by Hart and Risley (1995) who report an astonishingly wide gap between the amount of exposure to language children from high income families experience versus children of low income families. The headline figure is that by the age of three, children in professional families had heard thirty million more words then children in ‘welfare’ families.
However it wasn’t just the sheer amount of words that children were exposed to that differed. A child in a high-income family was far more likely to have a parent or carer who entered into expanded discussions about interests and ideas and affirmed their communications. So if a child in a high income family said ‘dog’ they were more likely to be responded to positively and less likely to hear ‘don’t touch’ or ‘no’. The ratios of affirmations to prohibitions reported by Hart and Risley are stark: 32 positive affirmations versus five prohibitions for the most affluent families, compared to 12 affirmations to 7 prohibitions for working class families and for the welfare families it averaged as five affirmations to twelve prohibitions. As Hart and Risley moved up the socioeconomic ladder children were increasingly part of more exploratory conversations and more discussions of a wide range of topics and areas. They acquired language much more quickly and were developmentally ahead.
Hart and Risley’s research looked at the impact of communication skills on cognitive development. As a psychologist I see a direct link between language and conversation skills and a child’s ability to deal with emotions and relationships. Rather than poverty per se, the biggest impact on language development and emotional awareness is family stress /pressure.
Whether Hart and Risley’s research resonates with you or whether you just want to have conversations that are slightly more rewarding and slightly more pleasurable; here are five ways to enjoy and engage with your children through conversation:
The most important tip is to make conversations enjoyable. By responding to your child with ‘yes…I can see what you’re saying…’ whilst smiling and turning your attention their way, you motivate them to talk more and to explore more. If you and your child are stuck in a frustrating cycle of boundary pushing then the simple act of saying ‘yes’ just relieves tension (the best way to break a negative cycle).
Conversely when children are genuinely sad or unhappy create the time and space to listen to them properly; noticing and empathising with their mood. The trick here is to empathise without over-egging the situation or trying to move the issue along by questioning or coaching a child. Allow them to feel properly heard and then watch for their cue that they have spoken about things enough.
Expand on fun things. My children love telling stories. When they’re learning to speak they perhaps say ‘car go fast’. To this I might add ‘yes…with red car’. I leave it there until I notice they add a further line to the story ‘cars go to nursery’ etc etc. In this way I’ve often built a story with a very little child. Bit by bit they become absorbed with the process and it’s lovely being part of that.
Play nonsense games. If you’re all sitting together eating, you might say; ‘here you go - have some squidgy fairy noses on toast’ whilst you hand them scrambled egg on toast. Children love a game like this and like to add silly remarks. Yes they can get giddy and loud at which point you can say lightly ‘come on calm down’. The important thing is that they learn to love language and the act of communicating ideas.
Invite children into the adult world: Tell them about your day. My children constantly ask me what I’m ‘talking to Daddy about’? I try and aim some of the conversation towards them. ‘Do you know I went on a really busy train this morning. Everyone was squashed together like this...’ (demonstrating standing straight with chin pinned down). ‘This card that came through the letter box is my voting card. It means Mummy can help our country choose the next prime minister….’
In Hart and Risley’s research one of the most significant findings for me was the ratio of positive openings to interactions which closed things down. When we feel stressed the pressure on us increases. We coach children rather than talk to them or play with them. Language is used to regain control and create barriers. Using mealtimes, school and nursery pick ups, bedtimes (or any routine part of the day) to have funny, sad, playful conversations not only develops children’s minds and emotions but also allows you to join in with their world. And what a wonderful world that is!