There’s a multitude of books and articles on how to talk to your child. Most offer good advice: Don’t make it all about you (“You think it’s scary giving a presentation on the planets? I have to give the keynote speech in front of twelve ambassadors from Japan.”) Don’t be passive-aggressive (“Oh, look, that little girl does not need to carry a bunny stuffie wherever she goes.”) Do have empathy. Do offer direction. Do show that you’re human.
But what’s often left out in the discussion is when to talk to your child. It’s just as important. Kids, like adults, can be anxious, guarded beings. Pull up a chair in front of them, gaze into their eyes, and say “Hey buddy, let’s have a nice chat” and you’re guaranteed to be met with uncomfortable silence. If you want your kid to open up, you should look for what author and family therapist Ron Taffel calls the “in-betweens.” He explained in Time:
What were you doing the last time you had a good conversation with your child? I know the answers: walking or driving to school, baking together, bath time, and, of course, bedtime. These times and activities loosen tongues because parent and child aren’t looking at each other. In fact, we are in parallel position. Most of us think talking is supposed to be about relating deeply, but kids actually open up in the middle of doing other things, during what I refer to as the “in-betweens” of life.
There’s power in the parallel position. Somehow, when you’re staring in the same direction, all pretence is shed. It’s not just for cinematic effect that some of the most profound conversations in movies happen when two people are chopping celery sticks together for dinner, or kicking a footie around. I’ve learned that my five-year-old daughter is the most honest with me when we’re laying down, side by side, staring at the ceiling.
It’s when she tells me about her struggles with her friends at school, and when I can feel her pausing to take in my advice.
We can’t force connected moments with our kids, but we can pay attention. If you notice that your usually-reserved child really opens up whenever you go for walk, you can try working the ritual into your evening. On road trips, you can make a decision to keep the iPads out of everyone’s hands until hour two. The most meaningful moments happen unexpectedly, but it’s up to us to make room for them.