Improving Family Talk
July 1990

“Improving Family Talk,” Ensign, July 1990, 28

Handbook for Families

Improving Family Talk

“You never understand! You don’t even try to see things my way,” cries a resentful teenager, storming out the door.

After a school band concert, a teenage girl sits alone in her room. She performed well, and her father was proud of her. But the only comment he made was to joke about how her music fell off the music stand. He wonders why she is so upset.

A man looks across the room at his wife, who is reading on the couch. He thinks of the love he has for her and how he appreciates her efforts to make the family’s life more comfortable and enjoyable. But he says nothing.

The silence is deafening.

What Is Communication?

Communication is a vital part of family life. But despite technological advances in communication—radio, telephones, television, and satellites—our communication with those we know best is often as difficult as it ever has been.

It has been said that it is impossible not to communicate. Verbally, we communicate through spoken words; nonverbally, through a smile, a frown, a hug, or a wink. Even our silences mean something to those around us.

Although we constantly communicate, we are not always aware of what we are communicating. It is critical that we do so, however, because the communication between husband and wife, parents and children, is largely responsible for how well a family lives together.

Even when we try to communicate, we sometimes do and say the wrong things. Many times what we say or do is not understood correctly, as in the opening examples.

Poor communication often results in disunity, hostility, and a breakdown of trust. Sometimes this causes communication to stop altogether. Hurt feelings, anger, bitterness, impatience, jealousy, and sorrow can also result from poor communication.

To counter these kinds of problems, parents need to establish an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect so children will feel free to express themselves openly. Honest, open communications enable us to better understand one another’s direct and indirect expressions. Trust allows us to feel free to laugh and cry together, to share each other’s joys and sorrows. As we strengthen and comfort one another in this way, we enjoy the richness of family life.

But establishing an atmosphere that promotes good communication does not happen without effort. Elder Thomas S. Monson said, “The ability to communicate is not something we are born with. We have to learn it and earn it.” (Improvement Era, Feb. 1969, p. 4.)

How Can We Improve Communication?

We are not without help in learning to communicate. Consider the experience of one frustrated mother:

Shortly after ten-year-old Wayne had moved into her home for foster care, she received a phone call from his schoolteacher. Wayne had been disrespectful to him and to other teachers. Her temper flared, and she began to think of all the things she was going to tell Wayne when he returned home that afternoon.

To make matters worse, Wayne was late coming home from school because he was fighting with a neighbor boy. The fight continued all the way to her front lawn. At that point, she stepped to the door and called to Wayne, asking him to come in. He ignored her. Then she ordered him to come in. “I was so angry that I knew I could not deal with the problem in that state,” she said, “so I sent him into his room to read.

“Shaking with anger, I slipped into my own bedroom and knelt and prayed. I prayed for wisdom in handling the problem, and I also asked that through the Spirit I would know what to say. As I stood up after praying, I felt a warm, calm feeling consume me. It started at my head and gently flowed to my feet.”

As she opened his door, she saw Wayne sitting on the bed. She was filled with an understanding of and a compassion for the challenges and difficulties of a boy in his situation.

“I sat on the edge of the bed next to him and put my arm around his shoulders,” she said. “The first words I spoke surprised even me, for I said, ‘Wayne, forgive me for being cross with you.’ Then I told him of the phone call from his teacher and gave him an opportunity to explain himself. We had a wonderful talk; he confided in me, and as we spoke, we did so in whispers. This was much different from the tone I had expected to use before asking Heavenly Father for help. It was a truly spiritual experience and it did more for the relationship between Wayne and me than any other thing.

“Thank goodness we have prayer and the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide us if we ask for it.” (Myrna Behunin, Ensign, Jan. 1976, pp. 51–52.)

With the help of the Holy Ghost, we can express ourselves heart-to-heart, spirit-to-spirit. We can be understood even if we have a hard time finding the right words.

Although the Spirit is the greatest aid to communication, there are a number of activities and techniques we can use that will also help us communicate better with family members. One way to improve communication may seem so obvious as not to merit mentioning—unstructured conversation. And yet failure simply to talk is one of the greatest sources of family frustration.

The Importance of Our Conversations

Much emphasis is given to the importance of teaching our children by reading the scriptures together, holding home evenings, bearing our testimonies, and the like. Yet we often fail to recognize the powerful teaching—not preaching—potential in our conversations with our children. Wise parents have found that informal, unstructured moments can permit the giving and receiving of very vital messages. Brief conversations in the car or chatting together while working or playing together often leads to deep, intimate moments of sharing and love. Such exchanges are among everyone’s favorite childhood memories. “That’s the only reason I go fishing with my children,” says one father who doesn’t particularly like fishing but likes the time it gives him to visit with his children away from other distractions. Some families take regular walks in order to create conversation time. Others use the dinner table as a place to keep in touch with each other. One pediatrician, a father himself, believes that what families say to each other at mealtime is of greater importance than what is eaten.

Not all parents realize the value of good conversation. But children benefit greatly from participating in interesting conversations. Such conversations help them learn to express themselves clearly, listen compassionately, respect the opinions of others, develop an interest in a variety of subjects, and see different sides of complex issues.

Starting Family Conversations

Some conversations start themselves. Special occasions, such as the arrival of new babies, baptisms, mission calls, marriages, and deaths lead to conversations all by themselves. In some families, children talk to their parents for a few minutes after coming home from dates or other activities.

But what do parents do when conversations don’t start themselves? First, we need to recognize that not all times are appropriate for conversation. Trying to carry on a conversation when one person is too hungry, tired, or upset may only lead to frustration, perhaps even antagonism.

Second, we need to set an atmosphere conducive to good conversations. We establish such an atmosphere when we show respect for our children’s thoughts and feelings. If we belittle a child when he offers his opinion, he will feel he has nothing worthwhile to contribute to future conversations.

Perhaps the best way to show respect is to listen. Listening is improved when we resist the temptation to interrupt or finish statements for one who might be slow of expression. Here, parents not only set the example but also establish courteous behavior as a rule. No one person should be allowed to monopolize a conversation. We can encourage others to take part in a conversation through pointed questions, such as, “How do you feel about that, Jane?” or “What has your experience been with that, Tom?” In fact, the surest way to stimulate conversations with children is to ask a question that invites a thoughtful response. Such questions show our children that we value their opinions, increasing their self-confidence.

At a parent-teacher conference, a young man’s teacher asked his father what he and his wife had done to raise a child so interested in so many things. “He may be the most teachable boy I’ve ever taught,” said the teacher. “And he knows how to ask questions and express himself so well.”

All the father could think to say was that he and his wife had spoken openly with their children from the beginning, never talking down to them, always expressing interest in their opinions. Whatever they wanted to talk about was important.

Beware the Dangers

Our children will be more inclined to enter conversations with us if they feel that we are open-minded. Often they want an opportunity to ask questions and then think through the answer out loud. If we are too eager to give them our ready-made answers, they may stop sharing their questions with us. On the other hand, if we encourage them to talk, they often will find answers themselves.

Religious parents tend to have an especially difficult time refraining from rushing to supply the moral or orthodox answer. But forcing conversations to such an end prematurely is like rushing a vacation trip through a beautiful country landscape in order to get to the destination.

Parents can skillfully guide the tone of conversations without lecturing. For example, when his children were criticizing a speaker from that day’s sacrament meeting, one father steered the discussion by saying, “He may not be the most accomplished speaker, but his message was good, and you could tell he believed it.” The conversation was thus turned away from the speaker and toward the content of his talk.

Occasionally, family conversations will deal with private, family matters—for example, financial matters. Care should be taken to keep such conversations confidential. On such occasions, we can be direct with children, telling them exactly what they can and cannot repeat to those outside the family. A good guideline for children might be: If in doubt, don’t say it. When confidences are kept—whether it’s about big brother’s feelings for a certain girl at the high school or something about Dad’s job—all the family will feel more willing to share openly.

Such conversations should be entered into very carefully in the first place. Topics that might be unpleasant or cause contention and those that do not concern everyone present—such as constructive criticism—should be saved for appropriate occasions.

Parents who listen to their children’s conversation enjoy two wonderful benefits. First, they get to know their children more and appreciate them more for what they are becoming. Second, they just might learn something, not to mention winning their children’s trust.

Topics for Conversation

Conversations are as diverse as the interests of the families who hold them. For instance, one mother has a child set the table with a world globe for a centerpiece about once a week. “We play a game in which one person finds a city or country and asks someone else to find it. Or we may talk about a place in the news and see where it is on the globe.” Another family assigns topics for mealtime conversations. One evening they might discuss a current event, the next night an inspiring idea, another night a historical event or a vocabulary word.

One of the best sources of conversation is the gospel. How many family conversations have been started with the simple question, “What did you learn in church today?” A Sunday mealtime discussion is an excellent opportunity to reinforce a lesson or to help children see how to apply a gospel principle in their lives.

Of course, gospel discussions do not have to be formal or structured. For example, a discussion of a recent book, movie, or TV program could lead to a discussion of morality, the environment, honesty. Some parents may be afraid to have deep gospel discussions with their teenagers. They may be afraid that their children will ask difficult questions or express negative feelings.

If we don’t already enjoy the blessings of good family conversations, our first attempts to open these lines of communication may be discouraging. We may meet timidity, interruptions, or a lack of interest. It may take time for our children to realize that we are honestly interested in what they have to say. But the rewards are worth it. Good conversations can become a means of increasing family unity and providing memories that we will treasure throughout our lives.

Photography by Jed Clark