Teaching your digital kids how to talk

With the increase of screens and devices in their children’s lives, one of the biggest concerns many parents have is the dying art of conversation. It seems that kids (and adults) have difficulty speaking to anyone without looking directly at a screen.


This is concerning for a lot of reasons. Most of us grew up without devices, other than the TV, and we learned how to talk to one another face-to-face.

But even our parents’ generation before us witnessed a decrease in our ability to carry on conversation, as we were too engrossed in our TV screens.

Should we, as 21st Century parents, be concerned? Should it worry us that our kids hardly ever look up? That they’re sometimes oblivious to what’s around them?

In short, yes, we should. We should also be careful not to vilify them for their inability to carry on a conversation. After all, we are likely the ones who gave them the screens in the first place. Oh, yeah.

So, let us instead intentionally teach the art of conversation to our children.

Why are conversation skills still so critical, when so much of their communication is done online and through text?

Conversation is powerful

Face-to-face conversation is still the most powerful medium for ideas.

Even though texting and email are faster forms of communication, and longer forms of writing are longer lasting, the human voice still conveys more power than any of these. Whether it’s in person, over the phone, or in front of a crowd, the message is always clearer and more memorable when it is spoken.

Conversation is emotional

Ever text or email somebody a sarcastic comment, and they totally misunderstood what you meant? Yeah, me too.

It is more difficult than we think to convey emotion through writing. Even the most skilled writers are limited in this. Chop it down even more to 140 Twitter characters or cryptic text abbreviations, and even more is lost.

It is only in conversation that we get the full picture. We not only hear the tone of the person’s voice (Is it light or heavy? Fast or slow?), but we see the emotion in their face (Are their eyes bright or shifty? Are they smiling or pouting? Is their body language open or closed?)

Most of us already know this: that we communicate much more through our non-verbals then the actual words we say. When we rely on text, email, or instant message, we are stripping out a significant portion of the message itself.

Conversation is relational

Have you ever had a week where you and your spouse or significant other only communicated by text and email? You were all running around so much with errands and appointments and kid-shuttling, that you barely had time to speak a few actual words to each other?

Betcha’ felt that warm fuzzy closeness by the end of the week, huh?

Didn’t think so.

I’m convinced that God wired each of us for relationships with others.

And while it’s amazing how technology has allowed us to keep in touch with family and old friends through social media and email, there is no substitute for sitting in the same room with someone and chatting.

The same goes for our relationship with our kids and their relationships with others. To deepen and solidify those connections, we can’t rely solely on digital tools.

Teaching the Art of Conversation

So how did we teach conversation to our kids? Here are just a few ideas:

Set the expectations

Make it clear that no one should talk to anyone else while looking at the screen. The phone goes face down, the laptop gets half closed, the Xbox gets paused…whatever.

And parents, we have to model this behavior. This applies to everyone in the house, not just the kids.

When one of your children asks you a question or approaches you, you should put your screen away so it’s not a barrier. Not an easy task, I know.

I do think it is okay, especially if you are working on something, to say to your child, “Honey, give me just one minute to finish this up,” and then be true to your word. After a minute, close your screen and give them your full attention. This sends a clear message that, when I am speaking to you, I’m not splitting my attention between you and my screen. (Just be sure to allow them to do the same to you.)

Directly teach the elements of conversation

Explain to them that eye contact is polite. Don’t allow them to mumble when they are speaking to someone. Teach them how to interrupt a speaker in an appropriate way.

Encourage them to do the following:

  • Repeat back what the speaker said, for clarification
  • Ask the speaker questions to draw out more information from them
  • Nod, smile, and verbally react at appropriate times when someone else is talking

Do not, however, try to do this all at once. Conversation is an art, not a simple skill to be picked up in an evening.

Consider focusing on one aspect of communication at a time, encouraging all members of the family to ”practice” that particular skill during family times, like a meal.

For example, during dinner for one week, all members of the family are required to ask a clarifying or leading question of the speaker before chiming in with their own part of the conversation. Make a game of it. Keep score!

Model good conversation

When you’re speaking to your children, be sure to exercise effective listening skills and respond in a way that you would want them to respond.

As a parent and a teacher, I am often guilty of cutting my kids off because I already know what they’re going to say next. This is an area I know I need to work on.

We must show patience, allowing them to finish their thought and express their idea fully, even if we know where they’re going. The goal is not simply to understand what my child is saying. Instead, it is also to let him or her practice having a conversation.

Make a deliberate effort to model good conversation skills with your spouse in front of your children. Agree on this ahead of time as to what those characteristics will be. It may seem a little forced, or staged, but you will be demonstrating to your children how adults speak kindly, thoughtfully, and respectfully to one another.

Create opportunities for practice

This may take some setup, but you can arrange to have certain circumstances or events to be very conversation-driven. For example, a visit to the grandparents could be an opportunity for an interview, rather than everyone sitting around looking at the football game.

Go on family outings where there will be no Wi-Fi. Invite your kids’ friends. Go hiking or camping, and leave the devices in the car.

On long road trips, it would almost be parental suicide to completely ban devices, without expecting serious revolt from the masses. Still, we would all agree there is a need to limit digital time in the car.

One way to allow for screen-time without robbing time for conversation is to put everyone on the same screen schedule. For an hour, everyone can chill on their devices (including the driver, who could listen to an audiobook). Then, for the next hour, no screens at all. Parents should be prepared with conversation topics, questions, or games. Pick up one of those packs of weird question cards to keep everybody talking.

Muscle through

If your children, like mine, already have a conversation muscle that is in the early stages of atrophy, this is not going to be easy. It will require patience and persistence on your part. You will experience The Resistance.

Ignore it.

Remember what our goal is for our kids: Happy, balanced, socially-comfortable, polite, etc.

We can get them there if we are deliberate about teaching them how to be good conversationalists.

What struggles or successes have you had in teaching your kids to converse? Add to the conversation (yes, I meant to do that) in the comments below or on Facebook.

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