Put your phone away and have conversations with your kids – listen to them, respond to them, ask them questions, be interested, encourage them to notice, teach them to think.

I was on a bus this week and there was a beautifully dressed, healthy looking little girl sitting in the seat in front of me with her mum. She was about six years old and clearly well looked after. Her plaited hair was immaculate.

The bus journey was about twenty minutes long and during that time this child attempted to engage her mother in conversation numerous times, not in a demanding, whiny way but just conversationally. She asked questions, pointed out things she could see from the window and made comments about the journey. Once or twice she repeated a word outside the window she could read. The whole time her mum attended to her phone – I couldn’t see whether she was texting or searching the web, all I know is that the most response her daughter got was a grunt. She didn’t look at her or speak once. Eventually the little girl began to sing quietly to herself and this too was ignored. When the time came to get off the bus the mother got up without a word and little girl meekly followed. However good her physical care, there would seem to be a gaping hole in this child’s life.

I know one should avoid making judgements on brief observations – but I see this scenario repeated over and over again and am concerned about the long term impact on children’s wellbeing. I used to live next door to a park and could see a playground from my kitchen window. I lost count of the times I watched children on the swings or in the sandpit while the adult with them had long phone conversations, often turning their back or walking away to hear more clearly what the person on the line was saying. There was no interaction about what the child was doing, no relationship building, no shared fun.

So why should we talk with our kids on buses, in parks, in shops and at home. Talking ‘with’ entails dialogue, not a one-sided set of directives. It involves tuning in, active listening, asking and responding; all critical to healthy, constructive relationships. How will our children learn to relate well to others if we don’t show them how?

The way adults interact with children also gives messages to the child about their value. Telling children they are wonderful is less of a boost to their sense of self as responding to their efforts, being interested in their ideas, sharing moments of laughter and being curious together. The little girl on the bus would be struggling to think well of herself as she was being positioned as not worth bothering about.

Teachers speak increasingly of children who have impoverished language when they start school. Not only is it harder for these children to understand what is expected of them, but they also do not have the tools to develop thinking skills, not to mention learning to read. Children who cannot communicate well often get frustrated and either switch off or develop more challenging behaviour.

It might sound insignificant, but regularly talking with your children while you are occupied in everyday activities, such as walking around the supermarket, can make all the difference to their development, wellbeing and learning. It might eventually impact on their future. When you involve children in decision-making, you give them a voice and sense of connection that enhances their resilience. When you engage in dialogue you promote children’s ability to pay attention and listen, critical skills in education. When you include topics such as where yoghourt comes from or what Fair Trade means you can kindle curiosity and the motivation to learn.

Asking children good questions extends their creativity and problem-solving skills and links learning across different domains. The best questions are open-ended – ones that don’t have a right or wrong answer. These can be as simple as ‘what can you see out the window‘ to ‘I wonder….what do you think?‘ , depending on the age of the child. The possibilities are endless. We often underestimate young people’s ability and you may be surprised at the depth of their answers when children are given the opportunity and stimulus.

Children are naturally inquisitive and their ideas and queries can be fascinating. Taking the time to enter the child’s world may offer a new perspective on ours or remind us what we have forgotten.

Sometimes we talk disparagingly about children being ‘attention-seeking’, but children need attention for their optimal development. ‘Connection-seeking’ is a much less pejorative term. If we authentically connect with our children on a regular basis then they are less likely to go to extremes to get a response and won’t mind if we sometimes just need a quiet time or adult conversation. It becomes easier to negotiate what is fair.

This is not about letting children dominate or dictate an agenda, nor about pushing them to achieve. It is about demonstrating respect. It is about being your child’s first and most important teacher and fostering their active engagement. Just by talking about the experiences that you share together – even just being on a bus ride – will not only make children feel valued in a meaningful way, it also enhances their communication and thinking skills, psychological wellbeing, confidence and attitude to learning.

Its not that hard and it can make all the difference.


For more about relationships across contexts, see Roffey, S. (2012) Positive Relationships: Evidence Based Practice Across the World, published by Springer and available on Amazon.