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A Penny For Your Thoughts
(Woman's Day, November 1, 1997)

Three years ago during an otherwise uneventful supper, a minor miracle occurred. My four-year-old looked up from her mashed potatoes and said, "Know what, Mom? In school we did arts and cracks."

Yes, I was amused by her creative English, but above all I was amazed. Was this the same kid who clammed up whenever I tried to engage her in conversation? ("Hi, Sweetie. What happened in school today?" "Nothing.") Was this the kid who often made me wonder: If this is how hard it is to connect with a preschooler, won't it be next to impossible when she's a teenager? I was haunted by the anguished words of my neighbor, a parent of a 12-year-old: "‘A penny for her thoughts?' I'd part with dollars if she would just fill me in on her life!"

My daughter's "arts and cracks" breakthrough convinced me that conversing and connecting with our kids is a dream within reach. Every parent can enjoy such precious moments. All it takes are three steps: setting the stage for dialogue, acquiring effective communication skills and committing to using and refining them.

Set The Stage

The time, place and atmosphere in which my minor miracle occurred convinced me that the first step toward parent-child conversation has nothing to do with what you say. It has everything to do with where you are. Setting the stage means, most of all, to be present. No matter how busy you are, carve out time to be with your kids. Workday conversations often blossom at getting-ready-for-school, supper, bath, story and bed time. Weekends are perfect opportunities to cultivate one-on-one conversations, whether over pancake preparation in the kitchen or sprinkle-covered cones at the frozen yogurt store.

Another way to set the stage for dialogue is to be present even when you're not. Conversation can be defined creatively. Judith Weil, a busy attorney in New York City, often leaves notes for her three sons to read when they get home from school: Ben! How was math today? And soccer? Can't wait to hear. Love, Mom... P.S. Check out the new granola bars above the fridge. Not only do these notes convey a mother's love, but they pave the way for dialogue later on. Finally, be present even when you're preoccupied. When you and your children are home together, don't disappear on them. Yes, we all need to read the mail and pay the bills, but we can often do those things and still be in the same room with our kids. Longer ago than I care to admit, I would do my homework at the kitchen table while my mother prepared supper. We did not talk much, but each of us knew the other was there should the need for words arise.

Acquire Effective Communication Skills

Now that you've set the foundation, here are several practical skills you can adopt:
  • Be quiet. Here is the best-kept secret for generating family dialogue: If you want your kids to talk to you, make silence your #1 conversation skill. Four years ago, I would lovingly interrogate my preschooler each day on our way home from nursery. My questions, which never elicited the lengthy responses I hoped for, were carefully designed to eliminate silence. To be honest, I was afraid of it, not realizing then that it was my ally. Gradually, I learned that the more I let the silence remain, the more my child would willingly fill it with words like "Know what, Mom?" or "Wanna hear something funny?" They were - and are - music to my ears.
  • Listen with your voice, face and body. When your kids fill the silence, you can intermittently invite more of their words in little, yet powerful, ways:
    • Say "Uh-huh,""Oh," "I see," "Really?" or even "No kidding!"
    • Nod, smile and look at your youngster.
    • Get on their level, whether it's the living room floor or the top bunk bed. Don't fidget or cross your arms.
  • Ask irresistible questions. Jane M. Healy, Ph.D., author of How To Have Intelligent and Creative Conversations With Your Kids (Doubleday, 1992), stresses the need to ask questions that cannot be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." Called open-ended, these questions begin with the words "What," "How" or "Why," instead of "Does," "Do," "Is" or "Are." Examples range from the thought-provoking ("If you ever saw a movie star sitting next to you on the bus, how would you react?") to the moralistic ("If you found a $100 bill in the supermarket, what would you do?") to the nosey ("How'd you get that bruise, honey?"). An often overlooked strategy, however, is to break the ice by asking concrete, easy, non-invasive questions. To illustrate:

    Your second grader's after-school karate class began today. You really want to ask: "What did you do in karate today?" But you are pretty sure what the answer will be: "Nothing." So instead, start nonchalantly with, "Was today karate class?" Follow up with "How many kids are in the class? How many of them are in second grade? What's the karate teacher's name?" Then, wait. Maybe 45 minutes later, ask, "So, what did you guys do on your first day of karate?"
  • Model enthusiasm for self-expression and storytelling. If you share your life with your children, they'll share theirs with you. Mealtime and bedtime are perfect opportunities for storytelling by parents and children. Try asking questions like: - "Who wants to hear the story about Daddy's first day of kindergarten?" - "I heard the third grade had a real adventure during recess today. What's the scoop?" - "Hey, tonight is the anniversary of the Blackout of ‘65. Do you know what happened on that night?"

    Real-life stories are fun, but fiction can also help families acquire communication skills. Easygoing, loving dialogue is featured in many fine children's books, among them I Like to Be Little by Charlotte Zolotow (Harper Trophy, 1987) and Birdsong Lullaby by Diane Stanley (Morrow, 1988).
  • Rediscover word games. In the "prehistoric" days before television, families entertained themselves with captivating games that relied exclusively on words. In our home, we have introduced our children to old favorites like Twenty Questions and new inventions like A Story to "Die" For (see box below). They sure beat sitting in silence - and virtual solitude - in front of the tube!
  • Fight technology with technology. Here's how to ensure that the telephones, televisions and personal computers in our homes work for, not against, family togetherness:
    • Invest in an answering machine, or start using the one you already own. Select key time intervals (the dinner hour, for example) when the telephone is simply off limits. Business executives hire a secretary to screen their calls because their work is too important to be undermined by interruptions. Parents can use their answering machine in much the same way: Surely, their work is too important to be undermined by interruptions!
    • Invest in a VCR, or start using the one you already own. A friend of mine put it this way: "I love to unwind after dinner with Wheel of Fortune. But those 30 minutes eat away at opportunities to be with my kids for homework review, bathtime fun, bedtime story, or just, ‘Guess what happened during recess today!' Now I tape the show and watch it before my own bedtime, and nobody feels cheated anymore."
    • Invest in the newest wave of interactive computer software, where the interaction is person-to-person, not person-to-computer. To illustrate, Family Album Creator (ABC/Creative Wonders Software) enabled my daughter to dictate her autobiography to me when she was five years old (see illustration). It also gave her a priceless opportunity to interview her great aunt about life in "the olden days." Both projects resulted in delight, discovery and togetherness.
Keep Revising

Last but not least, remember that what works today may not work tomorrow. As kids (and parents) grow, new ways to converse will emerge and others will fade away. If we can approach family conversation with love and flexibility, we will be giving our children - and ourselves - intellectual growth and emotional health: two precious gifts that will last a lifetime.

"The Days Are Going So Fast!"

Last October during an otherwise uneventful walk home from school, a major miracle occurred. My now seven-year-old broke our comfortable silence with, "Know what, Mom? The days are going so fast!" "What do you mean, Sweets?" I asked gently, touched by how far we had come, me and my "arts and cracks" girl. "Well," she replied, "look how dark it is, and it's not even suppertime!"

The days are going so fast! Little did she know how profoundly right she was. I smiled and thought: If only I - and parents everywhere - could grab these days before they fly away and build a closeness with our children that will last a lifetime. And in silence, we headed for home.

Rediscover Word Games
License Plate ABC's
While traveling, take turns calling out words that appear in skeletal form on passing license plates. Example: License plate RBN974 can produce rebound, ribbon, reborn and robbing.
Take turns calling out names of continents, countries, states, cities, rivers, etc., with one condition: each player's word must begin with the last letter of the previous word. Example: Tulsa, Alaska, Afghanistan, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Africa....
Front and Back
A version of Geography for younger children, where any words can be used. Example: hello, octopus, star, red, doll....
Take turns calling out letters that form a word comprised of at least three letters. Each player tries not to be the one who completes the word. Whenever players are forced to complete a word, they get a penalty letter: first G, then H, O, S, and T. When they get the T, they drop out of the game. The player with the fewest penalty letters wins. Example: S, A, M (avoiding D, G, P, T, W and Y), P (avoiding E), L, E (this player gets a penalty letter).
I Spy
State, "I spy with my little eye something the color [fill in a color]." The other players try to guess what the item is. (This is a popular game with younger children.)
Twenty Questions
State, "I am thinking of a person [or a place or a thing]." The other players try to guess who or what it is by asking up to twenty questions that can be answered with a "yes" or a "no." Example: "I am thinking of a person." "Is it a man?" "No." "Is she alive?" "Yes." "Is she an adult?" "Yes." "Is she famous?" "Yes." "Is she American?" "Yes." "Is she an entertainer?" "No." "Is she in politics?" "Yes." "Is she in Washington?" "Yes." "Is she Hillary Clinton?" "Yes!"
A Story to "Die" For
Roll one die. Whatever number comes up is the number of words you contribute to a story. Example: Roll 5 - "Once upon a time, there..." Roll 3 - "was an incredible..." Roll 4 - "motorcycle that could fly..." [Note: In our family, we have played this game even when we could not find any dice in the house; we simply rolled an imaginary die, another player would peer at the table and call out a number, and the story would unfold!]

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