Creating simple conversation can make big difference in families

Published: Sunday, April 29 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

Alison Prince and family

Like most parents, Alison Prince of Kaysville, Utah, wants a strong family. Making time to connect with her kids, she believes, is essential for realizing this goal. But time for meaningful connection is hard to come by as she balances being the co-founder of the popular women's blog howdoesshe.com and a full-time mother to four busy children ages 3 to 11.

Prince decided to start a dinner discussion ritual to ensure the family had a few minutes each day just to talk. "I wrote down hundreds of questions and put them in a jar," said Prince. "Each night at dinner we pick out questions and talk about them." The jar worked like magic. "The kids loved it so much we had to limit the questions to two or three a night," she said.

From the question jar Prince has learned fun things about her kids, their favorite animals and dream vacations, but also things they struggle with.

One night the question "if you were a shape which shape would you be and why" came up. The Prince kids responded with various answers. Triangle! Square! When it came time for her 7-year-old daughter to answer she said, "circle." Her response when asked why: "Because I am fat."

The Princes sat for a moment in stunned silence. "It's heartbreaking to learn that this is how your child feels about herself," Prince said. Still, good has come from it. "We understand her better," she said, and "now can give her the support and encouragement she needs to develop a positive body image. We may never have learned this about (her) if not for the question jar. It is literally helping us be better parents to our children."

Just talking with kids is the most effective way for parents to be involved in their children's lives, said Douglas Willms, director of the Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy at the University of New Brunswick. The benefits of parent-child conversation aren't limited to family unity, however. Studies show it improves kids' academic performance in math and reading, enhances their verbal skills and helps parents teach their values, according to Dr. Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist and founder of the website ahaparenting.com Aha! Parenting.com.

And while family talk time is essential, the reality is that drumming up conversation in the midst of the chaos of an average Tuesday night can be a challenge.

Here are some tips from experts to help families get their talk on.

Low-stakes questions

One way to get the ball rolling is to ask simple, abstract questions. "If your family doesn't have a culture of open communication, don't expect your kids to bare their souls right off the bat," Markham said. Start out with questions like, "If you could have dinner with any person in history, who would it be and why?" If directing the conversation toward school is the priority, try asking, "If you could make up a perfect teacher, from scratch, what would he or she be like?"

Open-ended low-stakes questions work well because they invite discussion without being too close to home, Markham said. Teenagers aren't likely to feel their privacy is being violated when asked what their favorite book is. Another important aspect of these types of questions is they are general enough that everyone in the family can contribute, from the 3-year-old to the visiting great aunt.

Bite your tongue

As kids open up, some of the things they share will be upsetting.

"It's natural to want to fly off the handle when your child tells you that everyone in their biology class cheats on the unit finals," Markham said. It is crucial, however, that parents find ways to moderate their reactions and avoid the impulse to lecture. "How the parent reacts determines the child's willingness to open up in the future."

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