Science has shown that the best way to help our kids become independent, confident, kind, empathetic, and happy is by talking with them. Yet, so often, parents, educators, and caregivers have trouble communicating with kids. Conversations can feel trivial or strained—or worse, are marked by constant conflict.
In The Art of Talking with Children, Rebecca Rolland, a Harvard faculty member, speech pathologist, and mother, arms adults with practical tools to help them have productive and meaningful conversations with children of all ages—whether it’s engaging an obstinate toddler or getting the most monosyllabic adolescent to open up.
The Art of Talking with Children shows us how quality communication—or rich talk—can help us build the skills and capacities children need to thrive.
What Rich Talk Is, and Why We’re Missing Out
A real conversation always contains an invitation.
—DAVID WHYTE, POET1
It’s a rainy Tuesday morning in November, and it’s school-picture day. The Edwardses, a middle-class family living in a small town in the northeastern United States, are getting ready for work and school. The two teenage boys wake to their phone alarms. “Already?” the younger boy, Todd, moans. He’d stayed up late worrying over a math exam. At breakfast, he and his brother, Charles, sign on to their social media accounts to “like” their baseball team’s win. “At least that’s something,” Charles says. Todd agrees, then gulps, remembering the homework he’s left undone.
On the drive to school, both boys slump in the back, half-asleep. During the day, the parents work at office jobs: Jan, the boys’ mother, as a hospital administrator, and Bill, her husband, as a marketing specialist. At school, the boys rush from science class to social studies, with both classes focused on test prep. In between, they text friends and scroll through videos but don’t actually meet up with anyone.
At dinner, the family chats about Charles’s upcoming college applications. “I can’t believe there’s only a month left,” Jan says, flipping through forms. Soon the boys ask to be excused.
All in all, a standard day for a family raising two kids in a high-powered public school. They didn’t talk much, but they didn’t argue, either. Conversation came mostly in short blips. Even their media viewing involved customized, on-demand programming. Each child watched solo. There was no shared experience and no need to compromise.
In many ways, the family was lucky: they were all healthy, Bill and Jan had well-paying jobs, and the boys were getting decent grades. And yet, as Jan told me one evening, she sensed something was wrong. They were busy, but hardly seemed connected or even present in one another’s lives. She certainly wasn’t feeling a lot of joy. And yet, she convinced herself, that was normal. After all, she was raising teen boys, who weren’t exactly known for being talkative.
Then came the phone calls. First from the school counselor, saying Charles was depressed and wanted to let Jan know but didn’t feel he could tell her. Days later, Todd’s soccer coach called, saying Todd was acting cruelly to his teammates. When confronted, Todd had apologized, saying he was stressed about school and had just broken up with his girlfriend.
Jan was stunned. Wouldn’t Charles have come to her if he felt depressed? Wouldn’t she have seen signs
of Todd’s aggression? She hadn’t even known he’d had a girlfriend. Bill, when he heard the news, was equally dumbfounded.
“I’d thought we were all moving along just fine,” Jan told me soon after. “Until we weren’t.” When she reflected, she realized they rarely took time to discuss hopes and plans or reflect on what worried or excited them. They often didn’t even stop to talk through their days. Even as they were constantly connected to people online, they often passed by one another from day to day, living separate lives. They were functioning but not thriving, and getting increasingly unglued.
I bring up Jan’s story not because it is so unusual or extreme. Her story echoes many others I’ve heard, in one flavor or another, over the years. We think we’re managing—making it through minor and major bumps in the road—and don’t take the time to notice or explore the cracks. If our lives are humming along, we don’t tend to seek out dialogue about trouble spots. And the same goes for the positive side. We tend to emphasize external successes—trophies, prizes, or good grades—but not highlight the times a child learned something new, solved a problem creatively, empathized in a surprising way, or even resolved an argument well.
As a result, while our kids are surrounded by chatter, they don’t always spend as much time communicating
in meaningful ways. They’re not always supported to give voice to deeper thoughts or feelings or take the time to hear ours. Even with all their digital connections, they’re increasingly isolated, fragile, perfectionistic, and often anxious, fearful, or depressed. In fact, stress and worry over performance have become an epidemic, as I’ve seen in my professional work and research, as well as in my talks with fellow parents.2 According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly a third of teens will experience an anxiety disorder.3 As college students, many are highly perfectionistic, in ways that feel toxic and harm their mental health.4
In the face of talk that emphasizes achievement over everything else, many kids end up self-critical. When they hear often about how successful others are—but not how they got there—they tend to feel at the mercy of their circumstances. When they think of learning as a game of “who gets the right answers fastest,” they’re less creative, empathetic, and open-minded than they could be. They might seem to be thriving when things come easily but get stuck when they hit roadblocks. Others, who’ve internalized the message of “fancy words mean you sound smarter,” have large vocabularies but stunted skills in expressing or understanding feelings, leaving them disconnected from their families and friends. Others fear disappointing their parents and say they have no one who understands them, even as their parents say they’re desperate to connect. So many parents I’ve talked to want to feel closer to their kids—but that
closeness can feel hard to attain, with the pressure to help with homework or the guilt of making “quality time” count.5
In my own work, I’ve seen how much children are thirsting for the chance to process their thoughts and emotions through back-and-forth dialogue and to connect with others in ways that let their true selves be heard and seen. I’ve seen how they suffer when lacking such opportunities. When kids mostly hear us as nagging or pushing, managing or directing, they tend not to seek us out as much. We leave behind the chance to pursue questions more deeply—to explore what interests our kids and us—and to enjoy the time to talk that we do have.
If you’re not paying attention, you might not notice the lack of deeper conversation. But you may see the aftereffects. College students, as a large review of more than 14,000 students over 30 years found, are less empathetic and community-oriented than in previous generations, with most of the decline seen after the year 2000.6,7 Many kids, even young ones, fear the intellectual risk-taking that leads to creative thought. Over the years, I’ve seen kids who struggle to brainstorm or collaborate because they’re overfocused on getting ahead; those who have trouble understanding how their friends feel; and those who don’t take risks because they’re terrified of mistakes. “I can’t. I don’t want to be wrong,” I’ve heard kids respond when I’ve asked them to guess, or even estimate. Many of these kids also have trouble learning from others. When they see learning as a race to get answers, their talk turns to questions of who’s best. They tend to focus on how well they’re performing as
compared with those around them. If they don’t succeed at first, they’re often hesitant to persevere, reflect on what happened, or try again.
In part, that’s the fault of the world they’re growing up in. We live in a society that prioritizes chatter over substance, quick updates over nuance, and on achievement seen in a narrow way. To help kids succeed, we’re encouraged to focus on what’s flashy, boosting their skills through the latest “build your brain” program, coding boot camp, or tutoring class. In doing so, we don’t pay as much attention to our everyday talk, which filters through our lives and those of our kids. Such talk could help us relate and bond, but we don’t always use it for that purpose. Instead, we often use talk to get us from here to there. But that leaves us in a language desert, where we have more words than ever—but less that brings us closer, delights us, or satisfies.
In my study of conversation, I’ve heard a message loud and clear: we and our kids are in desperate need of a reset from this childhood-turned-rat-race. Kids don’t need encouragement to do more, faster. Instead, we need to step back and notice our talk. We need to become more intentional in focusing on what really matters for their development and well-being.
I was working at a high school for children with language and literacy disorders when I met Jenny, a ninth-grader with severe anxiety. Often, she felt so
nervous in class that she ran out. Her teachers panicked. Someone had to search the school. Kids and teachers naturally got upset, and Jenny missed out on the chance to learn. Even worse were the fears for her safety, since no one knew where she’d gone. But with one teacher, Pamela—a soft-spoken woman who moonlighted as a yoga teacher—she stayed in class, and even lingered afterward. When I asked Pamela why, she simply smiled.
“I give her the time and space,” she said, “to talk or to be quiet. Either way.”
Most other teachers, it turned out, had grown frustrated and lectured Jenny, which only made her more flustered. But Pamela started out differently. Every day, she checked in and waited for Jenny to talk. Once Jenny described—often haltingly—how she was feeling, Pamela helped her explore how and why she was feeling that way. Whether Jenny felt excited or sad, Pamela listened equally. In the anxious times, Pamela counseled Jenny to take deep breaths, then use strategies to panic less. As a result, Jenny began taking hold of her anxiety. She also started taking ownership of how she felt. Through their talks, she grew to understand herself better, recognizing which strategies calmed her and evaluating her in-the-moment needs.
Back then, I simply thought Pamela was quiet, gentle, and understanding. And she was. But she wasn’t always that way. One day, I heard her regaling a few students with jokes. With another student—a boy who complained daily about homework—she sounded surprisingly strict.
Looking back, I came to realize her true gift. She was a shape-shifter, able to change her talk based on
what she heard each student needed. Instead of being only gentle or strict, she was responsive. That was her power: the ability to tailor her tone and talk depending on what she noticed about each child. She’d learned the art of having deep conversations, which started with making the space and time, and with being sensitive to a child’s subtle cues. She noticed what Jenny was saying, and how she was saying it. And she did the same for the other kids.
Equally important, she noticed how she felt about each interaction. As a natural introvert, she found it easier to talk with Jenny than to manage kids who acted out. But her personality had many aspects, which she allowed herself to express. At times, she drew on her “louder” or funnier side. She reflected on which conversations left her energized versus frustrated, then sought out more of the energizing ones. While showing empathy to her students, she directed compassion at herself. Inevitably, she’d make a mistake or say something she shouldn’t. Her students would, too. But her goal was connection, not perfection—and that’s what her talk allowed.
As I later realized, Pamela wasn’t unique. Over the years, as I met with parents, teachers, and caregivers from vastly different backgrounds, I was encouraged to see many others with similar skills. “Whenever kids
talk with her, they’re always laughing,” I heard of one mother, who held weekly playdates at her house. Or, of a principal: “All the kids go to him to talk—especially when they’re upset.” Or I think back to Sophie’s dentist, herself the mother of small kids, whom Sophie visited when she was six years old. We’d told Sophie she’d likely need to have a tooth pulled. Entering the office, she was practically shrieking. The dentist introduced herself calmly and asked about Sophie’s favorite cartoons. After a few minutes discussing PAW Patrol and Shimmer and Shine, Sophie gradually relaxed—especially when the dentist said her daughter had liked the same shows. When Sophie asked about the cleaning tools, the dentist answered thoughtfully, seeming to sense Sophie’s analytical nature and interest in how things worked.
After a few minutes, the conversation returned to the matter at hand, and Sophie went and had her X-rays done. But she came back with her jaw set tight.
“You’re not going to pull my tooth,” she said matter-of-factly. “I won’t let you.”
“I won’t force you,” the dentist said, and I sighed, fearing we’d have to return. Pulling out the X-rays, she passed them to Sophie. “Look.” She pointed to one spot. “You have an infection under that tooth. See here? You might not feel it, but if you wait, the infection could get worse.”
“I see it.” Wide-eyed, Sophie leaned in.
“I’ll give you a choice.” The dentist put the X-rays away. “We can pull it now and get it over with, or wait and see. It might hurt more if you wait.”
Sophie sighed and sat silent, lost in thought. Then a glimmer filled her eyes.
“Okay, fine.” She opened her mouth wide. “Go ahead.”
Without any force or artificial cheer, the dentist had recognized what Sophie needed to hear at that moment. Ever pragmatic, Sophie wanted the real story, which the dentist gave her—along with the X-rays. That satisfied her drive for information, in a concrete way, while letting her know we weren’t trying to hurt her. Sophie wanted to feel she had some choice and that the situation was at least partially under her control. The dentist, in giving her options, allowed for that sense of control, while strongly suggesting that the “wait and see” approach wasn’t the best.
In the moment, I found the dentist’s approach a bit extreme. It was a matter of health and safety, after all. Wouldn’t it be better just to tell Sophie, “The dentist has to pull it,” and deal with the inevitable upset? Shouldn’t we just have made her comply? But then I reflected. Forcing her wouldn’t have felt good for her. She would have felt powerless, and probably even more stressed. And what about the next time she needed dental work? She’d have no reason to trust us if we said it would be no big deal. What’s more, if this forceful approach became a pattern, it could erode our relationship longer-term. It wasn’t only about the dentist, but about the way we related. Instead, a simple conversation became a great one. It responded to what Sophie needed and who she was. It put her in the driver’s seat, letting her choose to do what needed to happen anyway.
For some kids, that approach wouldn’t have made sense. But the dentist had talked to Sophie first. She’d built a connection and gotten a feel for Sophie’s
personality and style. She’d tested Sophie with the X-rays, seen her engagement, and only then offered the choice.
Taking it step by step, in a responsive way, made the dentist a great conversationalist. It wasn’t any one phrase or strategy, or a combination. It wasn’t her use of a script or recipe. Instead, it was her ability to sense what a child needed, tailor her response, then check in—and repeat the process, learning as she went.
To an outsider, these great conversationalists might seem born, not made. But in fact, having these conversations takes a specific set of skills, which can be practiced, learned, and tailored to each child in your family or at your school. The true measure of these conversations isn’t how long they take or how impressive they sound. Instead, it has to do with what happens afterward. How close or distant do you and your kids feel? Did you and your child express what you needed or wanted to? Did they—or you—come away with more empathy, a satisfying resolution, or a new insight?
In daily life, we have many kinds of conversations, which are all valuable. We do need talk about who’s doing the laundry or where the library book went. Even small talk—the “How are you?” and “How was your day?” questions—can be comforting, helping us relate to others and even enhancing our cognitive skills, well-being, and mental health.8,9 Those social niceties can build empathy and perspective-taking skills, as we imagine how our conversational partners think and feel. But if we stop there, we’re missing out
on how much more conversations can do. This book is about nourishing those great conversations: prioritizing them and giving them room.
Arriving at these ideas has been, for me, a process of discovery. My training as a speech-language pathologist at the MGH Institute of Health Professions in Charlestown, Massachusetts, emphasized how tightly oral and written language—or speaking, listening, reading, and writing—are linked. I began to see how many kids who had trouble with writing, for example, also struggled to come up with ideas. I also saw how kids who talked through their ideas often had an easier time when it came time to write those ideas down.
With all this in mind, I began working at the school where I met Jenny and Pamela. I began to see how much interactions between teachers and kids counted, both to help them feel connected to each other and to help kids learn. It wasn’t only what kids were reading and writing that mattered for their learning and development. The everyday talk in the classroom was key.
Soon, I decided to study these interactions. I enrolled in a doctoral program in education at Harvard and soon zeroed in on the idea of “classroom climate.” That is, what aspects of teacher-student relationships
made the classroom feel positive and motivating? And did that positivity affect how well students learned or how motivated they felt?
Since no one seemed to have the answers, I decided to review all the studies I could find. I focused on older kids and on two aspects of classroom climate: the goals the classroom emphasized, and how much support the teachers gave. Most studies divided goals into types: mastery and performance.10 With “mastery” goals, kids see mistakes as evidence of learning and failure as a necessary step to success. They feel comfortable trying new things. Learning is an end in itself, and errors are par for the course.11 With “performance” goals, kids focus on getting answers right and avoiding mistakes. Often, they pit themselves against one another, in a competition to see who can finish fastest or be the best.
The goals that kids develop depend on the talk they hear. The responses their teachers encourage and the subtle messages they send play a part, as do the comments from their parents and friends. And this classroom talk, I soon found, mattered. Kids who felt their classrooms emphasized mastery got better grades, did better on standardized tests, and cared more about learning than kids whose classrooms emphasized performance.12 In fact, the more kids felt their classrooms focused on performance, the worse their academic scores. When they felt they had to get the right answers, they did less well. The strongest link was for sixth-graders. Many kids at the start of middle school, I reasoned, pay lots of attention to how others
view them. If they’re worried about not being “good enough,” a performance climate could make those fears worse.
Teacher support also mattered for children’s learning and well-being. When children viewed their teachers as more supportive, they did better on standardized tests. They also had stronger senses of self-efficacy, or feelings that they could achieve their goals, and were more motivated, social, and caring. Their teachers’ support, it seems, trickled down to how they felt about themselves.
I came away from that research with new questions and a sense of awe. We often assume learning is about academics and feelings aren’t as important. But the way kids felt about their classrooms linked strongly to how engaged they were and how well they learned. Learning was about far more than the curriculum. Daily back-and-forth interactions played a key role in how well it went.
With that idea in mind, I began studying preschoolers, whose brains are still more plastic, and shifted my lens to the adults in their lives. If this everyday talk mattered so much, how could we enhance it? How would kids benefit?
The way we talk to kids, I reasoned, matters especially in times of high stress. But how did talk change in stressful circumstances? To find out, I began studying and interviewing teachers in a high-poverty preschool, as part of a team implementing a yearlong training to support those teachers’ abilities to regulate their emotions and manage stress.13 There, many kids and parents faced chronic stress, as did their teachers, whose full-time jobs often left them under the poverty
line.14,15,16 Over an academic year, as I observed and interviewed these teachers, I was impressed at how much tenderness, even love, they felt and showed for the kids they taught.17 I was equally humbled to realize the severe stresses they faced and how hard they worked to keep an even keel.18 How well they managed their stress, I found, affected how they talked, which changed how kids behaved. I recognized, in this work, how deeply factors such as poverty affect children’s abilities to learn, develop, and thrive. Parents and teachers are in no way responsible for this cycle of poverty.19,20
But what about parents? Kids are in school, surprisingly, on average less than 15 percent of their waking hours.21 The talk they hear and engage in at home sets the foundation for the rest of their lives. Soon, I began to wonder: How did “family climate,” built on conversation, affect them, as much or even more than their “school climates” did?
While still in grad school, I started working as an oral and written language specialist, as part of an interdisciplinary team at a Boston hospital. As a group of psychologists, neuropsychologists, math specialists, and others, we diagnose children with language and learning disorders and make recommendations to their parents, teachers, and schools. The work is precise and in-depth. In our clinic, a child rotates among specialists for the better part of a day. Afterward, we spend an hour or more discussing each child’s case as group. Collaboratively, we work to develop a learning profile of that child and make recommendations to help her learn and thrive long-term. The years of this work have given me insight into how complex a
child’s journey of learning and development can be, and how important it is to see him or her from all sides. I began to view the process of understanding children as detective work.
That detective work starts early on, with reading a child’s file. Then, from the moment we meet, I observe everything I can about the ways he or she speaks and interacts. I always start with social conversation; for instance, asking how tired or awake she feels, whether she has plans for an upcoming vacation, or what she plans to do later in the day. This isn’t idle chatter, but a key part of seeing how she interacts with a stranger. Later on, noticing one area of strength or challenge raises questions in my mind about what other areas might be relatively weak or strong. As I find the answers to some questions, new questions rise up. Hearing from my colleagues gives me new insight. Occasionally, it upends my understanding. For example, a neurologist may show that a child has attentional difficulties that affect his ability to listen or participate. As I go, I keep my mind open, listen carefully, and try to let my picture of a child evolve.
Those lessons are important ones for us as parents. As I’ve come to see, it’s not only important to know a child’s strengths and challenges, in order to help him or her thrive. It matters just as much to know how a child perceives her own challenges and strengths: where she feels pride or embarrassment, where the sore spots or points of shame lie. These aren’t always the same as the sore spots we see. It’s not because a child believes she’s terrible in math that his teacher thinks so too, or because she feels she has no friends that she truly doesn’t. But her feelings about her
strengths and weaknesses matter more than her grades or scores. They affect how she behaves at home and in class, how she relates to others, and how she feels about herself. Those feelings, rather than any one test grade, are what will make or break her over the long term.
For example, I remember Michael, a child I worked with, who thought he was a poor reader. In part as a result, he didn’t want to read out loud in class and told me he “wasn’t a kid who reads.” It turned out that he was reading right at grade level. It was just that many kids in his class were unusually high-achieving and reading above grade level. Understanding that situation helped Michael reframe his sense of himself. He might not be a superstar reader, but he could read just fine, and shouldn’t need to feel stressed about keeping up with the rest of the class. At library time, he could check out the books he liked without worrying that they were “dumb.”
It’s through conversation that we’re able to dive deeper into those feelings and thoughts. Over time, this helps kids become far more self-aware: more in tune with their values, more specific about their goals, and more compassionate toward others and themselves.
Through back-and-forth dialogue starting with a child’s perceptions, we can help a child understand himself better. He can start to realize, for example, why he might be having negative thoughts. He can learn to reframe thoughts that are keeping him from trying new things. He can learn to make sense of where he’s been, in terms of his own successes and challenges, and where he’d like to go. All this, over
time, can change his learning and relationships with others, and even his life trajectory. And all this change starts with the smallest moments.
This experience was invaluable, but it also raised more questions. Especially after Sophie, my first child, was born, I began wondering: What specific conversational “moves” let us provide that help? How could our talk be a gateway of learning and connection? Which strategies could enrich our interactions and engage both ourselves and our kids?