I never worried about the prospect of teaching my children to communicate well. After all, babies learn language naturally from the environment around them, and I was confident of my ability to model both a rich vocabulary and good speaking habits.

Although I can’t remember my exact SAT scores, and it wouldn’t matter anyway since they keep changing the grading scale, I know my verbal scores were far and away beyond my math scores. There was no reason to think my children wouldn’t grow up to be talkative, precocious conversationalists.

As it turns out, while learning lots of words and figuring out how to use them can be a fairly straightforward process, learning to communicate well takes a lot of practice and intentionality.

One thing my husband likes to point out is that the burden of clear communication is on the speaker, not the listener. If misunderstandings occur, it is the responsibility of the speaker to rephrase in such a way that his message gets through.

From an early age, our kids learn to say “please” and “thank you,” and we require basic politeness in their interactions with each other and with adults. We also teach them that a cheerful tone goes a long way toward diffusing a tense conversation: “A soft answer turns away wrath; but grievous words stir up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).

We’ve also had to devote many lessons to speaking the truth with love. Young children are apt to blurt out unnecessary or awkward facts or opinions without regard for the effects of their impetuosity. Asking “How would you feel if someone said that to you?” doesn’t always work, since young children often have no idea why “Do you have a baby in your belly?” might not be a great question.

Then there are some situations that require a bit more discernment. For instance, I have told my kids that if someone asks you a question, before replying at great length it’s a good idea to stop and think, “Are you asking me this because you want to hear my long-winded explanations? Or are you trying to gauge my position on this before you feel comfortable sharing your thoughts? Or are you just providing an obligatory opening round in the conversational back-and-forth so that you can easily segue into what you want to say?”

Children are generally not sophisticated enough to employ this latter technique—if they want to tell me something, they will do so, often repeatedly and at top volume without regard to any pretense of interest in my affairs—so it might surprise them to learn that some people ask questions not because they really want an answer but because they want to tell you what they think.

It’s kind of like a riddle: even if you know the answer, it’s poor taste to give away the punch line; simply be a dear and give the expected response of “I don’t know, what?” (Explaining the etiquette of joke-telling—and receiving—is an entire topic in its own right.)

To be too transparently obvious in this ploy is not very polite, of course, but it is also rude to blather on interminably without noticing that your victim listener is not interested. To cover both extremes, I tell my kids to be attentive when both talking and listening. Learning to extricate oneself gently from a boring conversation may be just about as delicate as learning not to be a boring conversationalist. Practicing tact is indeed an art.

After fifteen years of marriage, my husband and I are still finding ways to improve our messaging. We’ve had to work through a whole gamut of communication pitfalls including tone, body language, unintended implications, and more. And that’s for two reasonably well-adjusted, articulate adults! No wonder our ingenuous children sometimes struggle with expressing themselves properly. But if practice truly makes perfect, we should be closing in on perfection any year now.


Photo Credit: iStock. Following images courtesy of author.