A child’s first and most important teachers are the parents, and one of the essential skills that parents impart is communication with others, especially in a digital age with the constant distraction of looking at screens.
Good communication skills are inextricably linked to good manners, and children learn language by listening to the people around them. Etiquette maven Emily Post said, “Good manners reflect something from the inside — an innate sense of consideration for others and respect for self.”
She was partly right. Good manners, and good communication skills for that matter, are not innate; they must be learned. But the most important qualities of etiquette are caring about others while maintaining one’s own dignity. This means learning how to take turns and making an effort to listen while someone else is speaking before offering a reply.
One quality that truly is innate in babies is the desire to gaze into the face of a caregiver. Returning that gaze when speaking to a child is one of the best ways to teach communication. The first six years of a child’s life are crucial to language development. Children learn through a constant dialogue with their caregivers. Thoughtful, engaging responses to “baby talk,” even when it seems like babbling nonsense, encourage and strengthen language development. As a child begins to learn sentence structure, correction is best done through modeling and repetition. For example, a productive response to, “I seed a cat,” would be, “You saw a cat? I saw a cat, too. What color was the cat?”
Reading together is key to developing a child’s communication skills. Children’s videos are fine in moderation, but experts advise that screen time should not replace time spent reading a variety of picture books aloud. As children progress to reading chapter books by themselves, reading aloud to them continues to be beneficial. Taking turns and even acting out the story with voices can be fun and can demonstrate how enjoyable reading can be. Even when teenagers are completely independent readers, parents can stay engaged by reading and discussing the same material.
In an era when reading the newspaper at the breakfast table is not necessarily as common as it once was, parents can still discuss current events with older children in an age-appropriate manner. Sitting down for a meal together at least once a day with all members of the household is a wonderful way to practice the art of communication. Children should be encouraged to participate in family conversations, and their opinions should be treated with respect, even when they spark an argument. If adults disagree about certain issues, they can model the correct way to debate different points of view, without belittling anyone. Of course, this perfect-world scenario often goes awry, but it is still better than failing to talk to one another.
Empathy, or the ability to relate to the feelings and emotions of another person, is an essential facet of good communication. If an audience, or just an individual, feels that a speaker can relate to their feelings, they are more likely to respond to a message. Children can learn how to be empathetic years before they learn rhetorical skills. Learning to call people by their names requires effort, but when you do take the time to learn people’s names, they know you care about them. Encourage children to learn the names of their classmates, even when they are in preschool. Talk about those children and get to know them through the child’s eyes.
Empathy can also be modeled by listening. Rather than pretending to listen while formulating potential replies, focus on the message, and pay attention to body language. If a child’s eyes are downcast or his arms folded, gently point out that this demeanor indicates lack of attention. A posture of receptivity is important to absorbing information, and, thus, learning.
Equally important, a young speaker should learn to adjust the message, or tone, based on how it is being received. Communication is always a two-way street. Even when speaking to a large audience, orators are aware of how individual listeners are responding. Consider Fred Rogers. While gazing directly into a camera lens for the television show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, he spoke as though he knew how an individual child would respond to him. Mr. Rogers also was skilled in the art of the pause. Even if he could not hear his viewers, it seemed like he was listening. Silence can be golden when it comes to communication. Motivational speaker Rory Vaden believes in the power of the pause: “A filler phrase such as ‘um’ or ‘like,’ what that says is that, ‘I’m nervous, I’m uncomfortable, and maybe not totally prepared.’ On the other hand, a pause says, ‘I’m confident, composed, and powerful.’”
Another essential communication tool is eye contact, whether speaking to one person or a thousand. Again, returning a gaze in a natural way will help a child learn to look at people when talking to them. Staring, however, is just as undesirable as avoiding eye contact altogether — either form of body language can make people feel uncomfortable. A message to a large group is generally better received when the speaker makes eye contact only with a few people throughout the audience. Good advice for a child on such an occasion is to look around the audience for someone familiar and someone who appears to be attentive, and briefly make eye contact with those people.
Even a child who will give very few formal public addresses will need to speak in front of a group at some point. A musician might talk to an audience about a piece of music during a performance. An athlete could have to speak to the press about a game or a decision to sign with a college team. When it comes time to develop the rhetorical skills necessary for such tasks, parents can supplement their children’s education by helping them practice and by encouraging them to stretch their wings in safe environments.
Starting in middle school, students have many opportunities to enter speech competitions. Local civic groups, such as the Optimist Club and the American Legion, often sponsor oratorical contests, which provide invaluable practice for middle school and high school students. As any member of the public speaking group Toastmasters International will tell you, repetitive practice is the best way to develop oratorical skills.
What about stage fright, or shyness, or introversion? In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain explains how she conquered her fear of public speaking. She attended a workshop that focused on desensitization training, which involved exposing herself to the experience of public speaking in manageable doses over a period of weeks.
Much like a Toastmasters Club, the workshop participants encouraged one another and provided gentle, constructive criticism. “This is very different from the well-meaning but unhelpful advice that you should just jump in at the deep end and try to swim — an approach that might work, but more likely will produce panic, further encoding in your brain a cycle of dread, fear, and shame,” Cain writes.
Introverts can practice moving outside their comfort zone when it comes to extemporaneous speaking. Drama and debate clubs can help a child develop these skills, as can a personal development class, but parents should let their children decide whether to participate in these activities. When it comes to prepared speeches, introverts might actually have an advantage, if they can learn to move past any performance anxiety, because they tend to be diligent about the hardest part of making a speech — writing good content. The secret, for both introverts and extroverts, is to prepare their remarks far in advance, then practice them for friends and family or record their presentation to identify potential areas for improvement.
Even looking in the mirror while speaking is useful in learning to control facial expressions and body language. Not only does this apply to public speaking, it can help a child learn to adopt a natural, friendly expression in more intimate conversations. According to Susan Cain, “Studies show that taking simple physical steps — like smiling — makes us feel stronger and happier, while frowning makes us feel worse.”
Teaching children to be proactive about the way they want others to perceive them is a gift they can use throughout their lives. It is also a gift to people whom they will meet. If we teach our children to communicate well, they will make people around them feel valued. Good communication will strengthen their relationships with others, and the ensuing exchange of ideas can only make their lives richer.