This is a sponsored post written as part of my involvement with the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility.
In every parenting book I ever read before our first-born daughter was born, there was never any advice to always be prepared to have any conversation at any time but as a mom of 5th and 3rd grader, I know they always tend to catch me by surprise.
“So apparently…” my daughter said between forkfuls of dinner, “a fourth grader in my class is dating two girls at the same time and neither of them know it! It’s so funny,” she giggled. “I don’t know why they both like him.”
From across the table, the looks my husband and I exchanged were ones of complete bewilderment that said OMG dating in fourth grade?!? Neither of us knew where in the world this topic of conversation was coming from when what we had been discussing previously had been pretty mundane. But since she brought it up, I felt it was my parental duty to seize the moment and learn more about the fourth grade dating scene. I wanted to pepper her with questions but instead of the rapid-fire approach, I knew one strategically formulated open ended question would get her talking.
“What do fourth graders do on dates?” I asked, eyes focused on my dinner. After all, I didn’t want to give her the sense that I was grilling her.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said nonchalantly. “Sometimes they text because they have phones. I guess sometimes they talk to each other at recess. But not too much because they don’t want others to know they’re dating.”
As I breathed a huge sigh of relief that fourth grade dating was really quite innocent, I was also glad that our daughter shared this glimpse into her world with us. Was I unprepared to have this conversation about dating at the dinner table on this particular night? Absolutely. But honestly, it could have come at any other time and I probably would have been just as unprepared.
Besides being prepared for the unexpected to happen at any time, I’ve learned a few more things about creating a lifetime of conversations with our elementary aged kids that the parenting books seemed to leave out. Here are seven tips for cultivating conversations that I’ve learned through the years that I hope will help your family.
Make yourself available to keep lines of communication open.
Creating an open dialogue is hard for busy families but sometimes all it takes is 5 minutes to let your kids know you’re there for them. Seize the briefest moments to talk whether they’re in the car to and from school or after school activities, grabbing a bite to eat before rushing out the door to start your day, or in the evenings when everyone is finally home for the night. That way you’re keeping the lines of communication open by providing endless opportunities to talk.
Find your family’s best time to talk.
When do your kids open up? Dinner time? Bed time? In the car? Is it different for each kid based on their age? In our house, bedtime is the time of the day when my kids let their guard down. Our bedtime routine has led to my daughter revealing that her then-preschool-aged brother confided in her that he was being called names by other kids class, worries about a folder that was growing fat with unfinished work, and talks about the mean girls in her grade level. I tend to not like her to get overly worried right before she falls asleep so I try to soothe her concerns while making sure that we can continue the conversation the next day or whenever she’s ready.
Let them know they can always talk to you about anything.
Talking about the mundane events in the everyday allows them to realize that they can come to you with bigger issues and concerns. I’ll never forget the night our daughter confiding to me that her preschool age brother was being called names by his classmates at school. Close to tears due to her concern about her brother, I reassured her that she could always share anything that was on her mind and she did the right thing by telling us. Since then we’ve had conversations about friendship issues at school, alcohol, sex, puberty, and so much more!
When they come to you, be quiet and listen.
As my daughter approaches the teen years, I always keep Dr. Anthony Wolf’s advice to shut up and listen in the back of my mind. As a father, pediatrician, and member of the board for the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, Dr. Wolf believes that while we may need to have teachable moments, we also need to let our kids feel like they’ve been heard. When kids feel like they’re being listened to, they’re more likely to listen to us.
Never let them know they surprised you.
Kids are full of surprises and while we can rarely anticipate what they’re going to want to talk about and when, being open means having the best poker face as possible. If they can see from your facial expression that they’ve brought up a subject you’re not so comfortable with, they’re not as likely to come to you in the future about other things they want to discuss.
Ask open-ended questions as follow up but don’t pry.
Open-ended questions tend to get kids talking more than those that just require a simple yes or no answer. They can be a way to better understand what kids really want to know when they’re asking questions. One night at bedtime our daughter asked how babies are made. Given her age at the time, and the fact that we had talked about it before in an age appropriate way, I thought it might be the night to have The Talk. When I asked her what she meant, she was wondering about different kinds of animal babies- not the birds and the bees. This helped me steer our discussion in the right way but as she gets older, it’s in my best interests to limit my own questions and let her guide the discussion so I’m not prying. Trying to gather too much information makes teens shut down.
Be honest but decide in advance how revealing you want to be, especially given the age of your child. When our nine year old daughter asked for beer at a ballgame, there was no beating around the bush. I responded with a swift no and then supplied my reasoning. It’s always best to have an age-appropriate, genuine conversation where you talk to them in an adult manner, rather than the condescending mommy/daddy voice that makes them feel like they’re younger than they are. As parents, you know your child best. Know when you need to be honest in an age appropriate way but you don’t need to be hyper-honest by oversharing in a way that’s not age appropriate or relevant.
We continued our meal that evening, with our daughter opening up to tell us more about who liked who in her class and across the grade, including top secret information that she was sworn to not tell a soul. When I brought up the idea that a boy one day a boy might like her and asked what she would do if he wanted to call or text her, she merely scoffed at the idea, telling us that boys were gross and she didn’t have a phone so oh well for them.
Having sat pretty quietly at dinner, listening and taking in the scene, her brother piped up as we finished our meal.
“Today at recess a kid got pants-ed on the monkey bars. You could see his butt,” he guffawed before turning serious and saying. “but he cried and I felt bad.”
And so ended another evening of dishing the playground dirt around the dinner table at our house. I have to say that our conversations are usually more ordinary but no parenting book could have ever prepared me for an evening where we covered conversations spanning dating, texting, and getting pants-ed on the playground.
As a #TalkEarly ambassador, I am compensated for my involvement but all opinions are my own.