The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

December 27, 2012

Sarah Coyne: Car gets conversation rolling

By Sarah Coyne
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — There is a special place our family goes to have lengthy conversations, and it's a mostly inescapable venue: the car.

I like to trap the kids in booster seats to guarantee a maximum transfer of information before we reach our destination. For the most part, car conversations are positive experiences. The lack of eye contact seems to draw out more details than might be willingly shared otherwise, and fewer distractions keep our talks flowing freely.

Even my preschooler is getting the hang of being chatty in the car, a fact I appreciate more and more as she ventures away from my watchful eyes. She tells me stories about her interactions and daily events that might not reach me no matter how many times I beg for information.

That's the thing about talking to our children: they usually don't respond well to begging. When I ask direct questions, the most I usually get are negatives or affirmatives, with details sadly lacking.

I thought it was an age issue or something specific to personality, but as my kids have grown, it seems to be more widespread. It's not universal; some kids will chat you up one side and down the other with little provocation. But for those children who are more reticent, we can still gain entrance into their minds and hearts without barging in carelessly, demanding answers and forcing opinions.

The most important thing for me to remember has been that statements work better than questions. Questions pry, but statements reaffirm.

For example, if my daughter is morose after a day at school, I might ask her what the problem is, but then she might feel like I was already halfway to condemning her or taking sides. If I say something more neutral, though, like "You seem really sad today," I'm affirming that her feelings are valid while offering her the option of opening up about them. Most times when I throw out a simple observation, my kids will respond openly.

From there, it's hard not to ask leading questions or give advice right away. What we all want -- adults included -- is a listening ear that will commiserate or celebrate with us.

We don't want somebody to tell us how we should have handled the situation or how they can understand why things went wrong. We want understanding. We want acceptance. And if we need help, we'll probably look to the person who was so genuinely considerate of what we've been going through.

Our kids are exactly like us in this respect. If we respond to their stories with thoughtful empathy, they will feel accepted and understood.

This is as easy as saying "Ugh, that must have been awful!" or "Being embarrassed is the worst." Not only can these statements of acceptance remind our kids that their feelings are normal, but they also encourage a deeper readiness to continue talking.

By listening more than talking or asking, we'll also be strengthening a bond of trust. This is something I'm desperate to cultivate now, before the beginning of peer pressure and parties and rebellious attitudes.

Once we've offered an opening statement, gotten the conversation rolling, and acknowledged the feelings of our tiny humans, there's every chance that the talks will be forthcoming and extensive.

So much so that we might not need booster seats and locked doors to keep the words flowing. So much so that the conversations might continue right on into the house and down through the years.

Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog, http://thisheavenlylife.