Speaking With Your Kids

How should we speak to and with our children? Realizing that a) I'm no expert and b) I'm mostly thinking aloud, I think we need to ponder these things. That is the intention of this blog, after all. To think aloud, and to invite you to join my thinking.

On Conversing:

Some form of this post has been stirring in my mind for many a moon, but what finally kicked me over the edge to put finger to keyboard was this article in The Atlantic. The focus of the piece, if you have not read it, is on early childhood education, preschool specifically, and the fact that though children are being taught more information than every before, they are in fact learning less. The author, a professional in the field, discuses various reasons for this, but then points to a number of things that provide a genuinely healthy learning environment for children. Here is a section:

As an early-childhood educator, I’ve clocked many hours in many preschool classrooms, and I have found that I can pretty quickly take the temperature from the looks on kids’ faces, the ratio of table space to open areas, and the amount of conversation going on in either. In a high-quality program, adults are building relationships with the children and paying close attention to their thought processes and, by extension, their communication. They’re finding ways to make the children think out loud.
The real focus in the preschool years should be not just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening. We forget how vital spontaneous, unstructured conversation is to young children’s understanding. By talking with adults, and one another, they pick up information. They learn how things work. They solve puzzles that trouble them. Sometimes, to be fair, what children take away from a conversation is wrong. They might conclude, as my young son did, that pigs produce ham, just as chickens produce eggs and cows produce milk. But these understandings are worked over, refined, and adapted—as when a brutal older sibling explains a ham sandwich’s grisly origins.
Teachers play a crucial role in supporting this type of learning. A 2011 study in the journal Child Development found that preschool teachers’ use of sophisticated vocabulary in informal classroom settings predicted their students’ reading comprehension and word knowledge in fourth grade [emphasis added]. Unfortunately, much of the conversation in today’s preschool classrooms is one-directional and simplistic, as teachers steer students through a highly structured schedule, herding them from one activity to another and signaling approval with a quick “good job!”
Consider the difference between a teacher’s use of a closed statement versus an open-ended question. Imagine that a teacher approaches a child drawing a picture and exclaims, “Oh, what a pretty house!” If the child is not actually drawing a house, she might feel exposed, and even if she is drawing a house, the teacher’s remark shuts down further discussion: She has labeled the thing and said she likes it. What more is there to add? A much more helpful approach would be to say, “Tell me about your drawing,” inviting the child to be reflective. It’s never possible to anticipate everything a small person needs to learn, so open-ended inquiry can reveal what is known and unknown. Such a small pedagogic difference can be an important catalyst for a basic, but unbounded, cognitive habit—the act of thinking out loud.
Conversation is gold. It’s the most efficient early-learning system we have. And it’s far more valuable than most of the reading-skills curricula we have been implementing: One meta-analysis of 13 early-childhood literacy programs “failed to find any evidence of effects on language or print-based outcomes.” Take a moment to digest that devastating conclusion.

The sentence I placed in bold struck a particular chord with me.  How we speak with children matters. In fact, it apparently matters far more for their learning than what sort of reading curricula that we decide to train them with.

My sensitivity to this began, to my recollection, in a doctors office as a rather young child. I have always had fairly sever hay fever, though as a child it was worse than it is now. This of course led to a yearly visit to the local doctor to see what medication was supposed to work magic in that particular year. In the year of this visit I have no recollection of what medication was prescribed, but I do have one very clear memory: being disgusted with the doctor for talking to as if I were a little child. Some of this, I'm sure, had to do with a large of amount of conceit and the mega-sized chip I used to wear on my shoulder. However, the point has always stuck with me, that children comprehend far more than we give them credit for, and it is frankly insulting to treat them, to speak to them, as if they were imbeciles. Children don't need everything broken down into small words or simple sentences. Of course we need to strive for clarity, and understand that many things do need to be explained to children. But how often are we short cutting this process of helping children learn by simply coming up with an oversimplified, "childish", answer?

Children are capable, from a very young age, of high levels of thinking and learning. Obviously this varies from child to child and does grow with time, but how we converse now has lasting repercussions. We need to take the time to listen to our children, ask them questions, and interact with their answers.

I've seen this beyond just small children, and into teenagers and adults. I used to spend most of my Monday nights working in a church youth group. To paint with a broad brush, there are generally two kinds of youth worker: those who genuinely want to interact with students and their questions, and those who want to shut down the questioning and expect students to simply accept everything they have been told. While I thankfully was primarily working with the former, to my great horror I had numerous experiences with the latter (and can slip into that mode myself far too often). Instead of expecting and desiring feedback, push-back, and questions, there were people who would want to spout off a platitude of some sort, and expect that to solve the issue. 

One thinks in parenting of the ubiquitous, "because I said so." Now, let me be clear: the fact that I have said something does mean that my children need to listen. But what if, when my daughter asks, "why?", I answered with the actual reason for whatever instruction I have given? She would not only be learning bare bones conformity to an external standard, but she could begin to internalize the truth behind the instruction. We can discuss (to the degree that discussion with a two year old happens) why it's not okay to push brother, why Mommy and Daddy make rules, and why God gives authority figures to us. On the outside her behavior may not be entirely different than if I had simply told her, "because I said so", but the difference on the inside, where it actually matters, may be profound. She will be learning true obedience, not mere conformity. 

This is but one of many possible examples. But it does illustrate what I think may be the rub: this takes time. Oh, so much time. Why do you think it doesn't happen in many of the preschools laid out in the article? It isn't simply a matter of educational philosophy, though that is surely involved. But how can an overstretched teacher build that kind of relationship with 20 or 25 kids? Pretty difficult, even for the best of teachers. Well homeschool, then! some will say. But this isn't happening in most homes, either, regardless of whether they are homes where public, private, or homeschooling is being utilized. 

Why not? Because we are busy. Oh, so busy. We work. We have church, school, and other community activities. We get home and we want to relax. In front of the TV, in front of the computer, or with our smartphone. And children interfere with this. They come of wanting to play, wanting to talk, and how quick we are to shoo them away. "Go play in another room." Half answers to questions we were not listening to. We wonder why children seem at times incapable of listening, when they are merely following the model laid out for them by their parents. Conversing with your children, like most anything worthwhile, means there will be much saying no to selfish desires for ease, laziness, and quiet. But you know what? You are responsible for bringing these children into the world. You chose them, they didn't choose you. So you owe it to them. So quit talking at your kids. Quit yelling at your kids. Quit ignoring your kids. And start listening to, and conversing with, them. Their future depends on it.


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