Preparing Children with the Art of Conversation
By Bill Smith
The skilled art of conversation is rare in today's culture. Families stare blankly into flickering screens. Teens and toddlers grunt. Spouses “download” information to each other before falling asleep. Yet relationships are, most would agree, what life is about, and conversation is a primary relationship-building tool. Skilled conversation reaches above the day's business and banalities to reveal and nurture matters of the heart. When your child masters the art of conversation, he becomes an effective ambassador for you and for God.
The Rise of Incivility
How do children learn conversation skills? Now, be honest. If, like most children, yours learn conversation skills from peers and siblings, parents and extended family, is it likely your child will become an outstanding conversationalist? To those who can answer, “Yes,” we offer our admiration. For the rest of us, developing a child's conversation skills requires training.
Have you listened to the rant on talk radio or the brutal verbal exchanges on TV when partisans discuss hot topics? Do we want children emulating that combative style in day-to-day conversation or projecting an “all-seeing, all-knowing” attitude?
We have watched little TV comedy since “Welcome Back Kotter” made the “big put-down” popular in the 1970s. John Travolta's character, Vinnie Barbarino, championed the retort, “Up your nose with a rubber hose,” which seemed to herald a new day in the implicit approval of incivility. Today, delivering the big put-down is admired. Add conversation, then, to the list of life skills we will not rely on the world to teach our children.
The Importance of Conversation Training
With so many course requirements, we might ask, how can we possibly make time for teaching something as “optional” as the art of conversation? Think back to your own formal education. How many of the courses you took apply to everyday life? Did you work an Algebra II problem this morning? Did you give a three-point speech or tell a Canterbury Tale on your errands around town? Did Newton's Theory fail to work just because you forgot what it is? Math, speech, literature, science and other traditional subjects have important places and times in life, but conversation is always on the tip of the tongue.
Will a child's conversation skills one day sell ideas to the boss or products to a customer? Will government officials hear when they speak for righteousness? Will the Word of God reach a lost heart through our child's lips? How many spouses fail to communicate? How many parents lose a child's heart because of a breakdown in communication?
Yes, learning the art of conversation is important.
Modeling good conversation in the home is a great way to start, but what if you are unsure of your own conversation skills? What if you lacked an excellent role model?
Children need thoughtful instruction on how to engage in an effective “spoken exchange of thoughts, opinions and feelings,” as conversation is defined. It should begin in the youngest years, when an untrained toddler would otherwise grunt to indicate a desire.
Recall the first time your child answered the phone. Were you satisfied with the results? Probably not. You no doubt followed with a hasty lesson in telephone etiquette. We know of a child who thanked Aunt Elizabeth for a fine birthday present with a scowl and the growl, “Another dumb shirt!” He lived to tell about it, but only after an extemporaneous and persuasive lesson from Mom in the other room. Some lessons are best taught ahead of need.
When and How to Begin
The earlier we begin teaching the art of conversation, the better. The need for training is all the more urgent as children grow older. Children also need review as stages of life present new conversational challenges.
Consider making the art of conversation a priority in your child's language arts instruction. Carefully consider the conversational skills your child needs to develop. The particulars may be different at various maturity levels, but many topics are universal. Topics we addressed with our children included how to start and end a conversation, body language (good and bad), telephone skills, etc. You really do know a lot about conversation, once you think about it. Training ourselves and our children to put the knowledge into practice is the challenge.
Add the Secret Ingredient
So many things can stand in the way of effective conversation, including distracting physical habits, missed cues, not knowing how to start a conversation and seeming inability to end it. All the skills, training and practice in the world, however, will not make our children outstanding conversationalists - distinguished ambassadors. We must add the secret ingredient: Character.
A child is naturally bent to keep the focus of conversation ever on himself. Again, he needs training. We cannot teach the art of conversation long without also addressing character. One of the primary elements that fuels good character is wisdom. We try to feed our children much wisdom and filter out foolishness.
Like a sponge, a child's mind soaks up ideas and the words to express them. Sure, the words and ideas do not always come forth when we think they should, but they are all stored up in there, somewhere. As parents, we wish our minds had not been saturated when we were young with advertising slogans and the words to popular songs. Our children will encounter foolishness, but they will overcome if we fill their minds with the words of the wise.
Fill with Words of the Wise
We had our children copy a famous wise quote each day and then memorize it. We then encouraged them to seek fitting opportunities to use those wise words in conversation. Like advertising slogans and song lyrics, the words of the wise settle into the mind for a lifetime of recall. May a child faced with racist banter, for instance, readily respond with the words of the Declaration of Independence and echoed by Lincoln at Gettysburg that “all men are created equal.” This response is more fitting than the suggestion that a garden hose be inserted up a nose.
We all chuckle over that question people ask about our decision to homeschool: “What about socialization?” Yet, let us not take for granted a home-educated child's conversation skills. To develop true ambassadors of Christ and children we are proud to send into the community, we must take affirmative action to develop the conversational skills and character that can impact the world.
Bill & Derri Smith are authors of “Conversation with Character” and “Quotes with Character,” curriculum for homeschoolers, available from Sweet Home Press, Joelton, TN, www.sweethomepress.com.