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Talking is one of the most important ways that children learn language and social cues, but how often are parents having real, meaningful conversations with their children?

In her new book, The Art of Talking with Children: The Simple Keys to Nurturing Kindness, Creativity, and Confidence in Kids, author Rebecca Rolland explains the power that conversation can have on a child’s development and explores ways that parents and teachers can make a more positive impact on children through conversation.

Rolland, a speech-language pathologist and lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, interviewed a wide range of experts for her book, including linguists, psychologists, neuroscientists, and of course, parents and children, including her own.

The Art of Talking with Children is full of fascinating anecdotes, useful advice, and explanations of research about how meaningful conversations with children of all ages benefit their social, emotional, and intellectual development. In an interview with Thrive, Rolland said that her book serves as a reminder to parents to be aware of their conversations with their children and to not be afraid to talk about big ideas and complicated subjects.

“This book addresses the fact that we often get on autopilot with our kids,” Rolland said. “Whether it’s parents or teachers, we all want to have rich language and rich conversations with our kids, but that often gets shoved aside amidst all the logistics of managing behavior and other duties we have to do.”

The Art of Talking with Children is about slowing down and realizing that quality conversations are powerful and beneficial, so we should strive to have them more often. Of course, that isn’t something you can just willfully do all the time, especially with younger children. However, Rolland’s book shows that it can be done often and more easily than one might think.

“You can make a difference in the quality of your conversations, and there’s a method for doing it well that science supports,” Rolland writes. “The opportunities are there, available at any time, anywhere, and to anyone. This book is designed to explore why these deeper, authentic conversations often go missing, and more importantly, how we can have more of them, in ways that raise curious, compassionate kids while enjoying ourselves.”

The Benefits of Meaningful Conversations

Rolland describes the “Seven Pillars of Conversation,” with one chapter devoted to each pillar. Those pillars are:

  • Learning
  • Empathy
  • Confidence and Independence
  • Building Relationships
  • Play (Promoting Joy and Creativity)
  • Openness
  • Temperament

Each chapter delves into why the particular quality matters with anecdotes parents can relate to, psychological and medical research for parents who wish to learn more about the complexity of these qualities, and explanations of conversational techniques to build these qualities within children.

For example, in the chapter on empathy, Rolland gives anecdotes on how children learn about empathy through social interactions: a group of pre-kindergarten age children at a glitter slime-making party realize one of their friends has less slime than they do, so they each give some to their friend to equalize the slime distribution. The children realized on their own that one of their peers did not have an adequate amount of something and corrected the situation. Empathy is part of human nature and even very young children act on it on their own.

However, it doesn’t always work that way. In another example, the parents of a 4-year-old attempted to give her a lesson in empathy by throwing her a birthday party and telling everyone not to bring gifts. Instead, the parents said, they would make a donation to a charity so their daughter understands the importance of helping others. But when the birthday girl realized she was not going to get a single present, she erupted into tears, resulting in the parents scrambling to get presents for their distraught daughter after the party. The 4-year-old was too young to understand empathy in this way.

There are no concrete right and wrong ways to teach certain qualities, and what does not work for some children might work well for others, and vice versa. That’s why a conversation is a powerful tool. When you can talk about ideas and concepts, children are able to understand on an emotional and abstract level.

How Conversation Helps Children Build Awareness

Some of the tips to achieve this in the chapter include helping children develop perspective and awareness of other people’s feelings, which psychologists term “theory of mind.”

“Encouraging this skill lets kids become more social, as they learn that not everyone thinks or feels as they do,” Rolland writes.

You can do this by noticing and responding to their comments in real-time. From the book:

“Say your child notices a shadow that looks like a dinosaur. ‘See?’ he asks, pointing. Try giving your own perspective and comparing it to his. Do you see a dinosaur or a cloud? Also, explore his perspective further, going beyond the here and now. Ask: What else does he see? Or, what’s the most interesting thing he can imagine seeing? Your excitement serves as the foundation of empathy – since you’re sharing positive feelings about the same idea.”

In another example that is easy to implement in everyday conversation, Rolland talks about the benefits of “Reflective Listening,” which is especially important for older children who are experiencing complex changes in life.

By using the “Three E’s,” parents can make conversation a more useful tool to understand their children and for their children to express and understand their emotions:

  1. Expand: Help kids use more specific emotional language.
  2. Explore: Dive into fresh ways of discussing the past (especially negative or confusing experiences) and reading into others’ minds.
  3. Evaluate: Test our compassionate actions or responses, then ask: “How did that go?”

These are just two examples out of many tips and explanations Rolland gives readers in her book.

Exploring and Reconnecting Through Conversation

“My goal is to offer parents and teachers a framework that can be used for children of all ages,” Rolland told Thrive, and that’s something that is especially important because of what children, as well as parents and teachers, have experienced over the past two years.

“Because there has been so much stress and disconnection, we need to remember how to build deep conversations and discussions in ways that are fun, feasible, and doable in the classroom and at home,” Rolland told us. “This is something I found can be highly beneficial for building relationships, as well as building children’s kindness, confidence, creativity, and social-emotional skills.”

And for parents who worry that they might not have the answers their children are looking for in particular situations, Rolland says not to worry. In fact, this can also be a benefit.

“One thing I talk about a lot in the book is how important it is to explain you don’t know things to children,” Rolland said. “Parents and teachers can get stressed or ashamed about not knowing answers, so they shut questions down. But it’s powerful for kids to hear their parent or teachers don’t know something and it’s an opportunity for them to explore something together.”

You can find The Art of Talking with Children on Amazon and other booksellers.

Rolland also has a free weekly newsletter with research-based tips, exercises, and activities to enhance relationships and build children’s skills.