Conversations at home don't have to be all about the kids

Betsy Hart
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Posted: Jul 31, 2007 12:01 AM

When was the last time your kids said to you, "Mom, how was your day?" "What did you do?" "Dad, so how was work?" "What's something interesting that happened to you today?"

Alvin Rosenfeld, a Manhattan-based child psychiatrist who studies families and their interactions, recently talked with Jeff Zaslow of The Wall Street Journal.

Zaslow writes:

"In America today, life often begins with the anointing of 'His Majesty, the Fetus,' (Dr. Rosenfeld) says. From then on, many parents focus their conversations on their kids. Today's parents 'are the best-educated generation ever,' says Dr. Rosenfeld. 'So why do our kids see us primarily discussing kids' schedules and activities?' "

Yes, having discussions with our kids about their day and their interests is important. Drawing them out in any sense, especially when they hit what may be the tightlipped teen years, is key to communication and to helping our kids navigate some choppy waters. And, in fairness to my own kids, I don't remember asking my own parents anything about their day.

But I did know that they had a life, including interests and passions, that was separate from me. I knew there was an exciting, interesting, adult world. It kind of seemed like ... something one earned.

I certainly remember a lot of conversations between my parents, or with their friends, during which I just had to be quiet and listen, whether or not I understood what was going on. Nor could I interject every few moments. That's if I wasn't asked to leave because "the grown-ups were talking." (For some reason a "no-no" today.)

Anyway, too often now, and sometimes in my own house when I fall into the trap, I'll hear adults trying to have a conversation (I'm not talking here about things kids shouldn't hear). And the children are constantly interrupting to either derail the conversation altogether or at least bring the conversation down to their own level. So then from the children there's a lot of "Huh, what?" "Who said that?" "What does that mean?" "Mom, wait a minute, well, why did he do that, Mom? How come?"

Pretty soon, the adults give up, and it's back to telling Susie how beautiful the picture is that she's just drawn, or raising Jimmy's self-esteem by focusing on how great his block tower is.

What a shame, because then we deprive children of a chance to be elevated into an adult world, and especially a world that's not all about them.

In contrast to modern trends, Rosenfeld says parents "should talk about their passions and interests; about politics, business, world events." I would add that they don't need to do this at a child's level. Even if children are getting only every fifth word or so, it can be a great thing for them to have to listen, and try to follow an adult conversation, mining it for clues to meaning and context, without constantly interrupting.

There is a time and a place to answer a child's questions or explain a concept in terms he can more easily grasp. But it's equally important that there be times when children get a chance to learn to climb their way "up" into a conversation, so to speak, to earn a place there, instead of always pulling others down to their own level.

Just getting the chance to see adults engaged in and excited about the amazing world around them, at an adult level, a world that's not just about their kids, can be a wonderful thing for a child.

In my house when I was growing up, that was a matter of course. In contrast, "What, a world outside of me? Are you kidding?" is, I'm afraid, the understanding of too many of today's little ones.

Encouraging them in that worldview does them no favors.

Occasionally elevating the conversation and leaving it there for a while, and even getting our kids to sometimes ask us about our day, might not turn around our "all about me culture" overnight. But it could be a step in the right direction. And, at least it will give us something new to talk about.