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The Importance of Conversation
By: Former Upper School Director Gail Clark
A Flight from Conversation
Conversations are key to language development, the exchange of thoughts and ideas and listening to each other. People learn by hearing each other’s thoughts while observing facial and body expressions that show emotions.
“Face to face conversation is the most human and humanizing thing we do,” says Sherry Turkle in her book Reclaiming Conversation – The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. “Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It is where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard and of being understood. Conversation advances self-reflection, the conversations with ourselves that are the cornerstone of early development and continue throughout life.”
Technology is a part of everyday life, but replacing face-to-face conversation with phone conversation, via texting, emailing, etc., has taken important skills away from children and young adults. In today’s world, there is a “flight from conversation,” as Turkle says. All ages of people cannot do without phones and screens, but a balance is of utmost importance.
The key to promoting language competence is encouraging children to engage in conversations. My ten grandchildren, ranging in age from 2 months to 12 years, reflect the development of conversation. The 2 month-old baby smiles and coos at me, beginning conversation and connection at its best! The 3 and 4 year olds converse by stringing words together into beginning sentences while we use our imaginations to create Buzz Light Year adventures or sing and play word games while swinging endlessly. They just naturally learn new vocabulary and expressions as we talk back-and-forth together. The 5 – 9 year olds’ conversations happen often over face-time, as they live far away, but still the conversing continues as they “show and tell” the treasures they found, and talk about books we read together.
When I call the 10 – 12 year olds, they are sometimes harder to converse with, as they often are on their phones or other screens in the middle of games or texting. But when I am with them, it only takes a walk, a bike ride or taking shots at the basketball hoop to bring about dialogue. As adolescence approaches, 15 year olds have a difficult time adjusting socially; texting is a way out of dealing with others emotions. They lack confidence to connect with others. The key with all ages of children is diving into their worlds of make believe or asking thoughtful questions where they explain, describe, or discuss their interests and experiences. Conversations cultivate the growth of language and confidence in speaking with others.
The Missing Connection
The importance of a face-to-face conversation is a physical connection between two people listening to each other. As children grow to middle and upper school ages, engaging in conversations, both listening and conversing, greatly influence the ability to relate with others. Through conversation, children are able to step into another person’s shoes, feeling and seeing emotions as well as other points of view. They understand that people see and experience things differently than themselves, which helps develop empathy and intimacy, and lays the groundwork for friendship. A text is a means for setting up a conversation, but is not to be misconstrued as a conversation itself. True understanding what a friend or acquaintance is really feeling diminishes. By texting, children have time to think what they will say and type the words perfectly without getting emotionally involved. But they are missing the richness of talking with each other, laughing and making mistakes together. True, face-to-face conversations are needed to connect with each other.
Faith in Human Creativity
Children also need to have conversations about their thoughts within themselves, a chance to play with ideas, think about their day’s activities, and become comfortable within themselves. Screen time seems like a simple alternative when children are bored or demanding. The best solution is to give them a chance to converse with their own thoughts. “When we fill every idle second of our lives we show our lack of faith in human creativity,” says Wendy Ostroff in her book Cultivating Curiosity. “Learning in school depends on intrinsic motivation and also on nourishing the seeds that germinate during time of boredom or impatience.”
Each fall, our sixth graders are excited to go on a camping trip except for one activity, the “night solo,” where they sit alone in the woods or a field for one hour with only the light of a candle and a journal. Upon returning home, many of the students say the hour alone in the dark, under the stars was the best. Some children wrote in their journals, some laid back and looked at the stars, and some just listened to their own thoughts. Teaching our children to relax and ponder is a gift that allows the brain time to think and reflect; it is where interesting and creative things can emerge.
Turkle tells a story of a father she interviewed before writing her book. He had two children, ten years apart, and shared the difference between his interactions with them over time. When giving his first child a bath, he conversed with him as he played with toys and imagined along with him. The second child, ten years later, he now noticed that instead of engaging with his child during bath time, he was semi-interacting, in between checking his cell phone. He understood that his interactions with his children had changed. Turkle is pro-conversations, not anti-technology. She encourages a balance of when to use devices and when to spend special moments talking with our children.
Although conversation is more of a challenge as we all move into the world of technology, there are avenues to open up dialogue. Decide together as a family when to dock all technology, so uninterrupted conversations can occur and engagement in each other’s thoughts becomes a priority. Lauren Lowry writes in her article entitled Conversations Are Key to Language Development, “Engaging children in meaningful interactions with give and take is so important to the social, emotional, and cognitive development of children of all ages.” The most desirable gift children can receive from their parents is undivided attention and even quiet moments together.
Opportunities for Conversation
- During dinner at home or at a restaurant
- Discuss age appropriate newspaper articles.
- Make up analogies for each other.
- Discuss the best and worse part of your day.
- Talk about what they would do differently in their sporting event.
- Plan the week’s dinner.
- Share and organize a trip that your family could take.
- Driving in the car (no movies for short distances or cell phones)
- For younger children, mention things you see outside.
- How do you think the crane is helping to build that new building?
- How many wheels are on that truck? Why do they need so many?
- What is in the truck and where is it going? Use your imaginations.
- Discuss a character in a book that you or your child is reading. How are they like someone you know?
- Use Wordly Wise words in context (“We are almost at school; it is time to disembark.”)
- For younger children, mention things you see outside.
- Before bedtime
- Make read-aloud books interactive. Ask thought-provoking questions. Make predictions.
- Encourage thoughts of numerous solutions to a character’s problem.
- Skip the text and talk about the pictures.
- Ask, “What was the best part of your day? The worst?” Share yours.
- Older children like to talk about their friends, sports or a project they are working on.
- Ask about memories of people or places in their lives.
- Discuss world issues.
- Read the same book as your child and discuss it.
- Decide on a game night once a week.
- Take a walk to the park or ride bikes.
- Have a family book talk about what each of you are reading or read the same book and discuss your points of view about characters and plot.