We need to talk to kids about the things that matter, and there’s a lot to talk about right now.
As a parent, I often find myself wanting to tell my kids how it is and what they need to know and do. Funny thing…they don’t always want to listen to me when I’m in my telling mode. Can you relate?
What if instead we first connect with our kiddos and then within that connection engage them in conversation that helps them learn and grow?
The most connected, meaningful conversations I had with my kids when they were little were at bedtime. I would lay with them in their beds, no distractions, in the dark; and as they relaxed, they would more openly talk about how they were feeling and share what happened for them that day. We had deep conversations about God, about death when great grandma Jean died, about 9/11, about kids in the park using bad words, and about why women have big breasts and men don’t. 😊 As they’ve gotten older, we still have courageous conversations in the context of their young adult lives as they continue to shape who and how they are in this world. This kind of conversation with our kids is such a gift. The earlier we give this gift to them, the more we get it in return as they grow and develop their independence.
Recently, we’ve had some big world topics that have generated a lot of conversation. In Minneapolis we have been listening with the intent to understand what’s happening from the perspective of our black friends and neighbors who have had experiences we’ll never have. It’s hard to hear, and our hearts hurt, but we must keep listening to be sure their stories are heard, so we can understand their experiences and find ways to encourage equality in our communities. It’s tough for us adults and even more challenging for kids to process what they’re feeling. Our kids are trying to make sense of what they’re hearing, seeing, and feeling; and they need our help.
6-Step Courageous Conversation Process
We use this 6-step process to help us have courageous conversations about any challenging topic, including but not limited to, COVID, racism/racial justice, identity, loss/grief, and emotional and mental health. We call it “PILLOW.”
Think about your favorite pillow and how comfortable you feel when you lay your head on it or hug it tightly. Courageous conversations will be uncomfortable, so bringing your PILLOW – literally, and figuratively with the steps below – can bring a little bit of comfort to the discomfort. It’s important that we don’t let our discomfort become an excuse for not having challenging conversations. We use the acronym PILLOW to describe the 6 steps you can take for courageous conversations that strengthen connections.
10 tips to help you have a successful courageous conversation with your kiddo (and adults too)
- Choose a time and place that your child is most likely to participate in this kind of conversation. Based on what you know about your kiddo, think about what time of day, situations, moods, and energy levels will be most conducive to a courageous conversation. Also be sure you can be completely present during the time you choose.
- Start with yourself. Educate yourself about the topic from a variety of sources then acknowledge and examine your own related values, beliefs, and biases. Self-awareness is a powerful tool to use in preparation for a meaningful conversation. What might trigger you because it feels like it’s in conflict with what you believe or think or evokes emotion about experiences you’ve had? Practice how you will respond.
- Enter the conversation with an intent of understanding and learning (for you and them). If you want to win, convince, or defend your way of thinking, you’re not ready to have this conversation (go back to tip #2). With an intent to understand, your goal will not be to get to agreement. A great way to start the conversation is by sharing your intent to understand.
- Don’t avoid difficult topics. Address them directly. When there is big stuff going on around us, assume your kids will be affected emotionally by what they see and hear. An important role of adults in kids’ development is sensemaking. Avoiding direct conversation about what you or they are feeling will not make it go away, and it will show up in the form of behaviors. An example of addressing a challenging topic directly is saying, “This is about how people with black skin are treated differently than people with white skin,” vs. “This is about how life can sometimes be unfair.”
- Start where they are. Start by asking what questions they have and how they are feeling. Respond with the words, level of detail and depth that meets their needs. Make sure they know that however they are feeling is ok. ALL feelings are a normal part of the human experience, and they are messengers that deliver important learning to us.
- Respect and honor their experiences. Believe what they tell you is real for them even if you can’t understand or relate to it. Each of us is the ultimate authority on who we are, how we feel, and what we’ve experienced. Assume that even in shared situations (like COVID), there will be differences in the way they feel and the way they are experiencing it. Be curious and listen with empathy, engaging your ears, eyes, and heart.
- Prioritize your relationship and respond with love and empathy. Your response will either open the door for real conversation or shut it down. If you jump right in with your opinion or say things like, “It can’t be that bad,” or “Are you sure?” or “That’s not true,” you may send a message that their opinions or experiences don’t count or it’s not (psychologically) safe to have this kind of conversation with you. Here are some first responses that will open vs. shut-down conversation:
- Thank you for sharing that with me.
- Please tell me more about that or What else should I know about this?
- I haven’t had that experience, or I haven’t felt that way or I have a different perspective. Please help me understand your point of view.
- I imagine that is/was ____________ (difficult, hurtful, overwhelming, etc.).
As you continue to listen, ask open ended questions that help you deepen your understanding and connection.
- Share family values. Talk about what is most valued in your family in a way that honors differences. Use words that you’d like to hear them use inside and outside the home; words that project respect, curiosity, humility, and are non-judgmental. Make sure you model these values.
- Expect to make mistakes and not always have answers. Ego is not our friend during courageous conversations; humility, empathy, and curiosity are. Pay attention to how they receive what you share with them (body language will tell you a lot). If you say something you wish you wouldn’t have, apologize, and ask if you can try again. If you don’t have an answer to a question, let them know you’ll find out. Or you can research the question together to find an answer.
- Use books and movies as conversation starters for difficult topics. Here is a list of kids’ books that covers a variety of topics: https://bookriot.com/2018/07/31/books-about-tough-topics-for-kids/. I just finished the newest Hunger Games book: “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.” This is a good book for kids with higher level comprehension to prompt conversation about a variety of social dynamics and realities, including COVID-19 and inequality and injustice.
If you’d like additional information to help you learn and talk about anti-racism, check these out: NYT Parenting article, this document from Leading Equity Center regarding conversations about race, and this comprehensive list (kid and adult ideas).
Courageous conversation takes practice, and you will likely think of ways you could have done better after your conversations. Great – make a note of your learnings for next time.
When you have courageous conversations with adults, books and movies are a great place to start. You may also want to consider setting some ground rules. Here are some examples:
- Agree to speak our truth – open and honest
- Listen with intent to understand and with no judgment
- Practice respect and acceptance
- No defending or attacking points of view or opinions.
- No trying to convince each other to believe/think like you.
- Agree to disagree
- Forgive when mistakes are made
Through connection we create the opportunity to not only have conversations that help us learn and grow but also strengthen our relationships and teach our kids about the world. The conversations you have with your kiddos will help shape who they become as adults.
Be courageous. Feel Well, Be Well and Do Well!
Yours truly and perfectly flawed,