Esther Cepeda: Conversations worth having with your kids
By ESTHER J. CEPEDA
Talking to your kids can be hard. Really hard. Even children who never stop rattling off every imaginable detail about their favorite cartoon become completely unresponsive when asked “How was your day?” “What did you learn at school?” or “What’s new?”
“I don’t like being asked about what’s new,” my 12-year-old son declared at breakfast the other day.
Well, at least that was seven more words than I usually get. My inquiries seem to have the exact same one-word answer day in and day out: “Fine.” Or “Nothing.”
Coming as no surprise to anyone who’s been to a family restaurant in the last year, a new study in the journal Pediatrics confirmed that families increasingly go out for meals together and then ignore each other for iPads, iPhones, portable video games and whatever else passes the time while Mom and Dad check email or surf the Internet.
Researchers observed 55 adults eating with one or more young children in fast-food restaurants in a single metropolitan area. They then identified common patterns of device use.
Forty used their mobile devices during meals and demonstrated varying degrees of absorption with their phones rather than with their children. The kids reacted by either entertaining themselves or escalating their ploys for attention. Researchers noted that highly absorbed adults often responded harshly to child misbehavior.
Who knows whether these people are just clueless jerks or simply ran up against the brick wall of “Nothing” and the old standby “Idunno” too many times and gave up?
Either way, you don’t need to be a social scientist familiar with the latest research on the impact that parent-child interactions have on vocabulary, impulse control and interpersonal relations to know that this is not a good thing.
But how do you get your kids—especially teens—to talk?
As you can see from my breakfast “conversation,” I’m no expert. But I do have two foolproof ways to get your kids into thoughtful, wide-ranging conversations at dinner.
No. 1: Show up with news.
In the last month, my family has talked through one opinion columnist’s take on how to treat people who have lived through a tragedy or are grieving a close one’s death, and a news story about how 10.4 million men in their prime working years don’t have jobs and many aren’t looking for one. (As it turns out, my 15-year-old son has designs on being a stay-at-home dad. Who’da thunk it?)
This week we’ll discuss A.O. Scott’s review of Wes Anderson’s new movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” We’ve watched every Anderson film multiple times and really “get” his movies, but it won’t hurt to clear up a few things about 20th-century European culture and the Iron Curtain.
Talking about current events is perfect for kids because they practice a fundamentally adult skill without the pressure of talking about themselves.
No. 2: Show up with prepared questions, an open mind and a soft touch.
This technique is especially good to bring out those who don’t share of themselves freely. Get the book “All About Me” by Philipp Keel and just throw out questions for everyone at the table to answer. “[Describe] one of your most peaceful moments” or “[Describe] a country you fear exploring.”
Or try “The Game of Scruples.” We don’t play the actual board game at meals; we take turns reading off game cards and answering honestly. “Your boss shows up at work sporting a bad comb-over and asks if you like his new hairstyle. Do you lie and say ‘yes’?” “The bank teller gave you an extra $20 by mistake. Do you inform him or her of the error?” Some questions are delicate—and some answers require keeping emotions in check—but they are definitely worth asking.
We just bought “Would You Rather … ?” which features questions such as: “Would you rather find out your parents are secretly spies or aliens?” and “Would you rather have seven samurai sworn to protect you or 500 hamsters?”
Randomly selected, questions that are not personal give kids the freedom to open up without feeling something is at stake. Plus they get to learn all kinds of things about their parents, too, making conversation entertaining enough to keep even the most devoted phone-checkers engaged (and hoping mom and dad are spies).
Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.