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Conversation Skills for Children: Talking and Listening

November 30, 2014 by HealthyFamilies BC

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Children learn how to talk and listen as they grow and develop. Positive talking and listening is about taking turns, speaking politely, not interrupting and not talking back.


Talking and listening

You might know this scene. You’re on the phone or having a coffee with a friend when your child bursts in - again - with a Lego emergency or a demand to “watch me dance, Mummy!”

This might be frustrating, but it’s also pretty normal. Learning how to communicate with others is a big step for your child. It’ll take time for your child to learn how to talk to and listen to other people.

Self-regulation is an important part of learning to talk and listen, and it’s harder for some children than others.

The kind of temperament your child has plays a part too - a very social child might want to be involved in every conversation and have trouble listening. On the other hand, a child who isn’t as social will probably find it easier to listen but might find it harder to respond.

Did you know?
Being able to talk and listen to others is important for kids. It helps children make friends, be listened to, ask for what they need and socialize with others.

Learning to talk and listen

When it comes to learning about talking and listening, your child will learn from you. If you try to speak to your partner, your friends and your children in the way you’d like your child to speak, it’ll help your child to learn.

You can also teach your child by prompting, guiding and practicing. Your child is likely to learn best when you tell her clearly what you want her to do. For example, you might:

  • prompt your child by saying, “Please say thank you to Grandma for taking you to the park”
  • guide your child by saying, “Sarah, if I’m speaking to someone you need to say ‘Excuse me’, and then wait until I’m ready to listen”
  • have practice conversations with your child where you take turns asking questions and listening to answers. 

Praising children when they’re communicating well will make them want to keep doing it. For example, “I love the way you waited for me to finish speaking before you started talking”. Or “You did really well with your pleases and thank you’s just now”.

You might like to make some rules about polite speaking and conversation. It’s important to talk with your child about the rules so that he understands what’s expected. You can also use consequences. For example, you might create a consequence such as time-out for rude language.

Tip: Children learn best when they have lots of chances to speak and practice talking and listening. Pretend play is one fun way to do this. For example, “Let’s pretend that you’re the mommy talking on the telephone and I’m the little boy. What should I do if I want to talk to you?”

Positive talking and listening

Being able to talk and listen well involves:

  • starting conversations
  • knowing how to get attention in the right way - for example, by waiting for a break and saying “Excuse me”
  • using eye contact
  • taking turns talking and listening
  • being able to speak clearly and in sentences that are at the child’s age level
  • speaking politely, without talking back
  • knowing when to stop talking. 

Some children pick up this up quickly, and others might need a gentle reminder - for example, “Rana, please look at me when you’re speaking to me”.

Tip: If your child seems to be behind in using language (using sentences, knowing how to speak with others), or in pronouncing words (lisping, stuttering or forming sounds), you might want to see a speech pathologist. You could also ask a public health nurse or doctor for advice.

Dealing with talking back

Your child might talk back when you set limits, discipline behaviour or give instructions. By talking back, your child is trying to give you her point of view. Some children also talk back to get a reaction from you.

You can manage talking back in a positive way. If your child talks back to you, the following strategies might help reduce it over time:

  • Respond calmly and remind your child of any family rules you have about speaking politely and treating each other respectfully.
  • If your child keeps being rude, you might need to give a consequence for the rudeness. This could be anything from practicing another way to speak, to losing a privilege such as screen time.
  • If you laugh or give your child lots of attention, you might accidentally reward your child for talking back. 

Managing interrupting

Interrupting usually happens when children can’t control their urge to talk. But unless it’s an emergency, it’s important to help your child learn to wait.

If your child interrupts, you can try some or all of the following:

  • Remind your child of what your agreed family rule is. Then continue your conversation until he says “Excuse me”.
  • When your child says “Excuse me”, try to reward her with your attention quickly. She’ll see that if she does the right thing, she gets what she wants.
  • Praise your child when he waits and says “Excuse me” so he’ll want to keep speaking this way. For example, “You waited until I finished my call before you asked for help with your doll. Well done!”
  • If you have an important call that really can’t be interrupted, try distracting your child with some special toys or an interesting activity.
© Raising Children Network Limited, reproduced with permission.

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