You’re at the grocery store with your 3-year-old in tow — intensely occupied by your phone. A friend spots you from across the way and heads over to chat. Before your conversation even begins, things aren't looking so good. A brief "Hello" from your friend to your child is met with utter silence. She tries again only to get a grumpy reaction out of your tot who's irritated for being interrupted from whatever it was he was doing on your phone. In your embarrassment, you make the excuse that he's tired and continue your adult conversation. You’re frustrated and this is a friend he knows well. Sound familiar? Even chatty children may surprise their parents by responding to adults with blank stares or lowering their heads. On the flip side, a child may say something totally inappropriate to adults or their body language may be a major source of concern. Most of us have experienced such situations with our children. If left unchecked, however, a child may assume that his behavior is perfectly acceptable. Teaching children to communicate properly is a challenge, regardless of whether they're shy or social butterflies. Becoming an efficient communicator is not something that happens automatically as your child grows. By making a concentrated effort, you can equip him with communication skills beneficial throughout life. When he's taught how to converse with peers and adults, he has a significant advantage. Students often make better grades when they're confident enough to ask teachers questions or share ideas. “Along with good reading skills, the child who has good communication and vocabulary skills seems to thrive,” says Carolyn Kovac, of Nashville, a retired teacher with 30 years of experience in a private school system.
The Right Start
Start early. Babies and toddlers learn conversation by listening. Talk constantly to your little one. However, avoid “baby talk.” It’s cute to hear a toddler’s attempt at pronouncing certain words, but if you adopt “baby language” and pronounce words incorrectly, it will stunt conversational development. If you allow screen time to occupy your child while out, be sure to teach him how to pause from his enjoyment to acknowledge you (or others) talking to him. He should be able to do so without getting frustrated or throwing a fit. If he does, then you might consider the amount of screen time he has. When it's appropriate, include him in conversations with other adults, but help him keep his comments brief. You can practice this with other friends and family that are parents of young children. They're accustomed to child-friendly conversations and are not as likely to get frustrated with your child or brush off his comments. Pediatrician Sonia Jotte, M.D., says, “While personality plays a role in how comfortable your kids are in expressing themselves to adults, parents need to stress exercising eye contact while speaking. Even if you have an introvert, basic courtesy in safe situations is still expected.”
Part of teaching communication etiquette involves training children to be respectful of others. For instance, when a child receives a gift from someone, he should automatically offer a sincere “thank you.” Role-play to demonstrate the proper response for receiving gifts, and be sure to address body language as well. Make a game out of showing him positive versus negative reactions. For older children and teens, communication at large is easier than ever before, although it appears oxymoronic. Messages can be sent to the other side of the globe within seconds, yet face-to-face conversation seems difficult. Have you ever been talking with a teenager and, in mid-conversation, he begins text messaging someone? Although rude, it is common. Sam Diaz, of the Washington Post, writes, “A Disney ‘Cell and Tell’ survey of more than 1,500 teens found that 44 percent use text messaging as their primary form of communication, and 28 percent say they have sent text messages from the dinner table.” Establish firm guidelines. Instruct him that part of communicating well involves listening well. As he gets in the habit of applying courteous behavior, a little acclamation will go a long way.
As your child matures, teach him more sophisticated conversation skills. By 6 or 7 he should be aware of appropriate behavior when speaking with adults. Common slang may be fine on the playground, but you really don’t want him addressing adults this way. The best way to learn is to practice. Most children who attend church regularly or involve themselves in community activities will have an advantage when it comes to talking with adults. If children rarely attend social outings, don’t expect them to speak efficiently when the situation arises. Having guests in your home is a great way to provide your child opportunities to sharpen his skills. Don’t feel pressured to always invite families that have children the same age as yours. There's also a temptation to wait until your child is older to entertain at your home. However, the experience and exposure at an earlier age will reduce the likelihood of a pre-teen who can only communicate on his level. Be proactive. A little prep will be beneficial. Let your child know if he and a guest share common interests like sports or music. Adults usually welcome children joining in the conversation. Though it’s tempting to mention examples of better responses during a conversation, too much berating on the subject may embarrass or hinder your child from experimenting with different areas of conversation.
Stimulating Conversation in Your Home
Just as you encourage your child to read by having a wealth of reading material in your homes, encourage conversation by having positive communication in your home, too. If you don’t spend much time conversing with your kids, they may show deficiencies in this area. Homes lively with stimulating conversations allow kids to learn to offer intelligent input on a wide variety of topics.
Benefits of Success
If you diligently teach your child how to talk to adults you will discover he loves the benefits of his success. Ordering his own food in a restaurant or looking a new teacher in the eye while introducing himself gives him a sense of pride as well as a boost to his self-confidence. Children are usually happier when they're able to answer independently without having to be told what to say. Older kids with years of practice in their conversation know-how may realize that adults take them more seriously than teenagers who stare at the floor and mutter. Regardless of the direction children take in life, communication will be an everyday part of it. When they find themselves closing a sale in corporate America or knowing how to express themselves to their spouses, they will be grateful to have such a valuable gift.