Q: My 13-year-old daughter can't hold a conversation. She and her friends text each other -- even while together! I want her to talk with family and friends. She's not shy; she just comes off as detached. How can I teach her the art of conversation?
A: "Knowing how to have a meaningful conversation is an important life skill," says Dr. Allen Mendler, a nationally respected expert on motivating learners and the author of "When Teaching Gets Tough" (ASCD, 2012). "Parents should take an active role in developing kids' oral language skills. Your daughter may moan and groan, but don't give up."
Mendler suggests the following strategies:
-- Model good conversation. Conversation is a volley of thoughts and opinions that help us get to know, appreciate and respect one another. You model conversation by exchanging views, not by checking your email when your spouse asks your opinion.
To practice, "Try one- to two-minute interactions, one-on-one, a few times each week with your daughter unrelated to behavior, tasks or homework," suggests Mendler. "Share something about yourself she might not know, or ask her opinion on a topic. Use responses or prompts that enhance conversation, such as, 'Really? Tell me more. Why do you think that happened? No kidding!'"
-- Set aside "no electronics" family time. Schedule a distraction-free environment with turned-off phones, such as a regular family mealtime. "Ask everyone to share something about the day -- a highlight, problem, something they learned, something fun or a way they made somebody's life better," says Mendler. "If there is initial silence, wait 15 seconds and then share something about yourself. Model good listening by summarizing what each person said. Eventually, expect other family members to do this."
-- Challenge her. If she and her friends hang out without interacting, bet them five dollars they can't have a conversation for five minutes. "Tell them a conversation means you talk and then ask a question that shows you might be interested in what someone has to say," says Mendler. "Teach them the SLANTS rule: Smile. Listen. Answer or ask questions. Nod to show interest. Track the speaker. Share something back."
If no one begins, you start. For example, say, "What can we do that's fun but doesn't cost a lot?" and talk for one minute. End by saying, "So those are things I like to do that are inexpensive. What are some things you like to do?"
Another twist is to bring up what 13-year-old girls are interested in -- such as boys, music or fashion -- then pretend you are clueless: "I don't get it. A hundred years ago, when I was 13, I couldn't stop talking to friends about boys and our favorite music. All you girls do is fiddle with your phones. What am I missing? Just out of curiosity, who's the cutest guy at school? Who's the smartest? Why?"
If nobody engages, talk about guys you knew when you were 13. When your daughter expresses horror ("Oh, Mom!") that you once thought a guy was cute, you'll have started a good conversation!
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)