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Teaching Conversational Skills: Help Teens Learn to Speak for Themselves

During just one day of travel, my 11-year-old managed to lose both a baseball cap in an airport and a family laptop computer in a rental car agency. Obviously, phone calls had to be made to (hopefully) get the goods back, but who was going to make them? When should we reasonably expect our kids to speak for themselves?

Helping Kids Speak For Themselves

There’s a case to be made that it should be my kid doing the talking. The only way kids learn to talk to adults, says Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, is by practicing. “If we do it all for them throughout childhood, then we basically unleash them on the world with no skill—lacking one of the most fundamental skills we need, which is the ability to interact with other humans effectively.”

Makes sense, right? But how do we get our tweens (and maybe even our teens) to the point where they can advocate and speak for themselves, confidently and respectfully?

Like most child-rearing dilemmas, it all begins at home. Before kids can talk to strangers or adults, they have to learn to talk to those they know best—their family and friends.

Michele Borba, author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed In Our All-About-Me World, emphasizes the need for face-to-face connection, which helps kids learn to read others’ feelings in their face, tone of voice, or body posture. Tweens are often “more comfortable texting than talking,” says Borba. This is even more reason why we need to protect time for play with their friends, and to carve out “sacred unplugged time” at home as well. Parents can start teaching conversational skill (not to mention foster closeness) by making space for plenty of laid-back, chatty togetherness.

As kids are becoming more comfortable talking with those in their inner circle, it’s time to stretch them a bit outside the home, too. Sure, we’re talking about tweens here, but Lythcott-Haims says we can start supporting our kids as soon as they have a decent amount of language, maybe as early as age two. When someone asks your child her name or age, we can turn to our kid and have her answer instead. “You’re empowering them to speak to other people instead of being their mouthpiece,” says Lythcott-Haims.

Developing Communication Skills For Teens

You don’t have to have started at two, though. Once we pay attention to how often we are speaking for our kids, we will notice the everyday chances we have to encourage and mentor our tweens to speak for themselves. It’s not only ordering their own restaurant meal, but asking an employee where the restroom is. There’s talking to the doctor, and giving their name to the receptionist at the front desk. There’s making the small purchase in a store, after asking an employee which aisle has the item they’re looking for.

Even when it comes to interacting with authority figures, experts recommend starting to hand over the reins to our tweens, says Lythcott-Haims. “We do a lot of advocating for them … with teachers, principals, coaches, referees. But the truth is, when they leave our homes for college or the workplace, their lives are full of strangers. They have to know how to approach someone respectfully with whatever concern or question is on their mind.”

The good news is that if we start now, we have the chance to coach them through it. With this in mind, my son called the airport lost-and-found to ask about his missing NBA hat. We rehearsed what he was going to say and what manners he would use. And lo and behold, he did it, with me by his side.

“Do you think they knew it was a kid calling?” I asked after he’d hung up.

“I don’t think so, Mom,” he told me with satisfaction.

We never did find the hat, but at least we’re making progress of another kind.

Sharon Holbrook

Sharon Holbrook is managing editor of Your Teen.