Leading and Caring for Children

Cultivating Conversations with Children

If we want to find out what a child is thinking or feeling, we hold a conversation — a deep, satisfying conversation — where we become truly connected and appreciative of each other.

What did you do in school today? Nothin’.
Did you see Sarah? Yeah.
Anything interesting happen? Not really.

Not so good, huh? Many people get short, empty responses from children when they try to have a conversation about their day. This used to be my experience, too.

I noticed that children often gravitated to favorite people they loved to talk to, so I watched them hoping to learn their tricks. I found it wasn’t at all clear why the children opened up to them and not to me.

Undaunted, I recorded conversations and read everything I could find. As I gradually learned some piece, I practiced while video taping myself. The results weren’t pretty, but I kept at it because it was so important.

After a while I began to see the dimensions of conversational leadership with children, but I still wasn’t very good at it. Then one day I happened to do it passably well whlle being videotaped! A breakthrough for me. Once I could do it, I knew how to help others. I built a class for teachers and care givers in the Early Childhood program at North Seattle College. Cultivating Conversations was the first class I built from scratch. No text. Just a thick course packet of examples and exercises.

I heard many times that this single course was one of the most life-changing experiences of people’s lives. They found the study of their own conversations with young children opened up new worlds of relationships with children and their adult friends, too. Here are three student reflections to give you an idea of the breadth of what opens in this study.

I am finding others are noticing the change in my approach with children. My assistant said, “I’ll never be as patient as you.” She had watched what happened when a child said to me, “I hate cops.” My first reaction was to defend police officers, and let the child know my sister is an officer, who is really kind. Instead, I decided to listen more carefully to the child. In that pause he went on. “My daddy’s in jail the police came and pushed him down. The bad cop took him away now he’s in jail for a long time. I miss my daddy.” My response was, “That was really scary, I bet.” He said, “It was so scary. I fighted the cop and he picked me up and gave me a bear. He said my daddy will be OK.” The child did not care about my officer sister or my opinion of cops. He was spilling his heart, and I gave him someone to come to when he had something important to say. I said to my assistant, “I’m sure glad I didn’t blow it with my own personal beliefs.” — Toni-Jo Sykes

The most important thing I have learned from this study is that I have to let the child lead without directing the path or the outcome. If I fire off questions that lead the child off on a tangent they didn’t intend, I miss out on so much the child could have said. Usually the child gives up and leaves feeling unheard. It was extremely helpful to learn about paraphrasing and parallel personal comments, although I am a work in progress. I still have to think hard to paraphrase correctly. The most important experience for me was doing the Conversation Analysis. It was fascinating to break down a conversation and study something we partake in every day and give it absolutely no thought. It is pretty amazing when you stop and consider the knowledge you can gain in talking to a child. I strongly recommend that everyone do this work. I came away with such a profound understanding of the purpose of a conversation. Today I find that I can truly help children blossom and feel free enough to be able to say what is on their mind. — Victoria Porter

I saw a television show last week that applies to this work. In the show, the woman was full of grief about her son’s injuries and the huge impact it had had on his life. She was afraid to talk to her husband about it because of his work stress, so she turned to her Priest. The Priest, after listening to her story, told her that she should talk to her husband, because that was essential to their relationship. “Married people have to be able to lean on each other. If you don’t, you are depriving him of the opportunity to live up to his vows.” I learned in Cultivating Conversations that it is OK to be human with your children. If I am sad because someone died or happy because my sister is getting married, then I can share those pieces of my life, especially if I am asking children to confide their deepest feelings and thoughts with me. It shows them that I believe they have the possibility of understanding me. — Candice Hoyt


Before you lies a course of study where you can explore the distinctions that are necessary to have optimal conversations with all kinds of children. Each step challenges you to understand, then practice, and finally analyze how well you do in recorded conversations with children. Just reading doesn’t cut it. I invite you into the work.

Throughout the succeeding pages, you’ll find statements in red marking tasks to complete. I recommend that you do them. Task One is below. You can either read these two conversations, think, “Yes, Tom, apples and oranges.” Yes, they are different, and simply move on to the next page. Or you can stop and discuss the differences with someone else, which can help you see why they’re different and have a chance to guess the apparent motivations of the adults. Those are fundamentals of this study, best left for you to discover.


Both adults are preschool teachers recorded talking with children. However, the adult in Conversation B undertook this study.

What differences do you see in these two short conversations?

Conversation A
The adult and child are looking at a picture book about transportation. The I-5 freeway is visible outside the window.

Adult: Where do cars go?
Child: (no response)
Adult: They go in the water?
Child: No. Go on the street.
Adult: That’s right. On roads and streets.
Adult: What is that called out there where the cars go real fast?
Child: Road.
Adult: It’s called the freeway. That means they can go real fast.

Conversation B
The adult is watching a child play with vehicles.

Adult: What are you looking for?
Child: I have to find some… a washing machine and a dryer.
Child: Oh, here. (puts toy washer inside a toy bus)
Adult: How come the washing machine is in the bus?
Child: Oh, ‘cuz. The city bus is bring it.
Adult: They take washing machines on the city bus?
Child: No, they don’t. They have something on top that holds it. (puts a basket on top of the bus and places the washer in it)
Adult: Ah! Something on top… A cargo carrier!

 Trusting you see the key differences, I invite you onward.

Next Satisfying Conversations