The Art and Skill of Talking with Kids

This podcast will focus on the art and skill of talking to kids. How do we engage in conversations that spark curiosity, foster empathy and encourage kids to embrace challenges? Let’s move discussions from surface to substantial. Dr. Robyn Silverman interviews Dr. Rebecca Rolland on How to Talk to Kids about Anything today.

Special guest: Rebecca Rolland, Ed.D

Science has shown that the best way to help our children become independent, confident, kind, empathetic and happy is by talking with them! Thank goodness this is true since we’ve been discussing talking with kids about all kinds of topics since 2017 on this podcast. However, so often, parents , educators and caregivers are at a loss and have trouble communicating with children. Conversations can feel trivial, forced or strained- or worse, can drum up and become marked by constant conflict and butting heads. So how can we get in the habit of having meaningful conversations with kids of all ages? How do we spark curiosity, foster empathy and encourage kids to embrace challenges through talking with kids? And given the need for much more understanding around issues of gender, race, sexuality and different family structures, how do we engage in discussions that can celebrate differences while also understanding and being empathic to how those differences might be treated in this world. For all of this, we have the pleasure of interacting with Rebecca Rolland today.


Rebecca Givens Rolland is an oral and written language specialist in the Neurology Department of Children’s Hospital Boston and a lecturer at Harvard University. As a nationally certified speech-language pathologist, she has worked clinically with populations ranging from early childhood through high school and provided teacher professional development. As faculty and Module Director at Harvard Medical School, she lectures on topics of communication, mental focus, and creativity. She frequently consults with organizations working to design powerful learning experiences for kids and adults, including the World Bank. She has an Ed.D. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, an M.S. in Speech-Language Pathology from the MGH Institute of Health Professions, an M.A. in English from Boston University, and a B.A. in English from Yale. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts with her husband and two children.

Important Messages:

  • The back and forth of conversation can build relationships.
  • Sense of belonging- everyone’s uniqueness. Enjoy each other. The belonging can come from embracing everyone’s uniqueness.
  • Rich talk: ABCs. A- adaptive. Going with the flow of who your child is (in the moment or long haul). Shift and be flexible based on them. B- back and forth. Don’t talk at someone. C- Child Driven. Starting with what is on the child’s mind.
  • Mistakes- what were your mistakes today? What would you have done differently? What would you do next time? All of us make them! Can be light too.
  • Don’t need a heavy conversation every time.
  • Promote confidence. Promote mastery approach. Mistakes are necessary and needed. We can celebrate getting part way!
  • Be your own judge. What did you like? What worked well? We don’t always be the judge.
  • Small steps. Research- overpraising- low self-esteem- can make them feel worse. Comes across as hallow. Praising to cover something up. Good intentions. Shift balance over to them. Make yourself own judge.
  • Show drawing. “Tell me more about it!” Child makes a narrative. Be positive. “I like how you tried all the colors.” Something about what they tried rather than what’s pretty. Specific as possible. Effort and process over the product.
  • Questions: What made you choose orange for this? Who is this over here? Process questions. What did you like about this? Can have mixed feelings. Model acceptance of all of it.
  • Kids and mental blocks. For kids who have mental blocks like this- what to do? Visualizing. Create a picture of self as someone who can succeed. Talking through. Imagine yourself doing the back-walkover. What would you need to do? What would it feel like? Create a peaceful space- visualize it. Regroup from panic. Draw on senses. How does it smell? How look? What do you hear? Areal view. Take perspective of another. Other people’s fear. Everyone has blocks. Olympic gymnast. Relax into it. Someone successful- this person may have felt this too. How did they get through?
  • Fear: What would make you feel more brave and less scared? Spot me this way. Hear this. Little things- many of these things can get in way. (1) Predictability (2) Control. Work through during conversation. What is more under control? My particular socks. Small things. Sense of security.
  • Many of us have had to face the “quitting” issue with our kids- they start something and don’t want to finish it- or they get to a hard part and don’t want to continue. “Play barometer” to make small shifts and allow for conversation that doesn’t just sound like “I’m quitting” “no you’re not.” Why are they wanting quit? Burn out? Physically hurt? Bullying? Immediate issue. Not sure like it anymore. Friends aren’t showing up. Different factors lead to different out comes. Three Es. Expanding on child’s thinking. Exploring- what are you not liking and want to quit. Embrace feelings.
  • “I want to quit.” Maybe seeing that it’s something fixable. Want them to stick with it. How help them see uncomfortable but necessary to stick through. Hard for kids to see benefits of sticking through it. Use your own examples. “I thought about quitting piano. Was frustrated. But then when I could play complicted pieces, more fun. But couldn’t get there until I learned basics.” See back and forth. Value getting to different value. Ask- goal- what would you want to be able to do?
  • Bias and stereotypes: “So important in this day and age when there are so many different kinds of differences to recognize a similar type of talk can support kids in combating bias and stereotypes across differences.” Learning differences, racial and ethnic differences. Cut across to be open with differences. Expand on initial understanding. Where have they heard a stereotype? “I feel like because I have dyslexia, I’m not smart. Need some Factual. Explore that we are all different in different ways. “Your friend has a learning difference but you, also, learn in a different way.” Maybe you are like your friends in THIS way, but different in THAT way. Start with themselves and then see the filter- apply to others.
  • Bias. Asking questions can be very powerful. Why do you think that? Have you seen examples of that? Counterexamples? People they know AND Films, books, video games. “Girls not good at sports.” Counternarrative. Where have you heard that? Why has that stereotype developed? Do you think that a while ago, when girls were not allowed to play sports, that could have had an influence? Maybe that’s how people got that idea. History. Reason why someone might think that. Apply to other areas.
  • Lower income area- stereotyped- “not smart” but the stereotype might come from lack of access. Food deserts. Not eating as much fresh food. Not because they don’t want to. “Let’s drive around and look.” What would you have access to? Where would you walk to? What’s around? Understanding plus empathy. Squelch the stereotype with putting high beams on all-or-nothing talk. “All girls” “All kids in low income areas”. Counternarrative becomes the narrative because the previous narrative is incorrect! Also, nuance. “It’s not that ALL lower income areas have no access, some do. (i.e. neighborhood gardens).”
  • Don’t always realize that they are stereotypes. Handed down from generation to generation. Apply to gender, race, status. Busting stereotypes. Prompting and generate on own too. See connection between different biases. Start with parent talk- jump start child doing it on their own.
  • Hot topic. LGBTQ. Biases. Stereotypes. How parents/educators. People are arguing about this topic. Difference. Start with a foundation of respect for the person you are with. No matter your feelings about that difference. See them and talk with them with a foundation with respect. How do we respect people? For example, (1) Use their pronouns that they want. Use the name they want. (2) recognize error and correct. Yes, hot-button topic but it still starts with respect. Respect and listening.
  • Hot button topic. Kid is digging in to one side. Parent digging in to other side. Not listening. Conversation rather than just an argument. “Be the person who isn’t going to keep digging in.” Pull back and allow self to ask questions to understand your position better (not easy!) even if not agreeing. Doesn’t have to be an equal one has to win situation. Let them express why this is. Then give your interpretation. How did you come up with that idea? Can you tell me more about that? (Modeling!) Hot button issue like transgender girls in sports- argument in car example- “I don’t agree with this part of what you are saying but can see that both of us feel that we want everyone to be included in sports comunity…” See the overlap.. Is there something you are agreeing on? To move to unstuck.
  • When going into a conversation- not going in to prove our point but to learn something. Otherwise, giving a mental soliloquy.
  • If we aren’t in mindset to move forward, shelf it! “I think we are both getting a little heated here. I’m having trouble seeing your point of view right now. Might be better to take a little break as I’m getting a little upset. Return to it at another time.” Meta way- “I think this is an important talk to have with you. I just don’t feel that I can have it in this moment.” Model. Message. Not shutting down. Right now, not regulated enough to have it. Maybe talk about it at dinner or bedtime…”
  • *We need to have small conversations again and again. Sometimes not the time or place to have that conversation. Do research. Not prepared. We aren’t regulated. Sometimes, we aren’t in a position to have it in a productive way. Or find our child so triggered- need space. Schedule time to talk about it again. Not pushing it off. Can feel out of control on some days and not on others. See the issue right along side you. Find a time when it will work.
  • Big rich talk, don’t have to have as subject matter that is big.
  • Change paradigm. Don’t always have to advise or teach. Can be more of a back and forth partner.

Notable Quotables:

      • “Engaging in quality communication with children is so important because it will enhance your relationships, have more fun in those relationships and help build children’s skills over the long haul.”
      • “The ABCs of ‘rich talk’ are A- it’s adaptive. You go with the flow of who your child is in the moment of in the long haul. B- Back and forth. Don’t talk at someone. C- It’s Child Driven. Starting with what is on the child’s mind.
      • “We can set our own goals and celebrate partially meeting those goals even if we aren’t going to succeed all the time or if we are inevitably going to fail part of the way and need to stop and regroup.”
      • Instead of overpraising, shift the attention to something your child tried rather than what’s pretty. Be specific as possible and focus as much as possible on the effort or the process rather than the product.”
      • “We want to start with parent talk but inspire kids to eventually jumpstart these important conversations on their own.”
      • “When dealing with difference, no matter your feelings about that person’s difference, start with a foundation of respect.”
      • “If you aren’t in the mindset to grow at all in a talk, it might be better to shelf it until we are.”
      • “Big or rich talk don’t have to have, as their subject matter, big ideas. You can talk about big ideas by starting really small!”
      • “Let’s change the paradigm a bit from one where we believe we always have to be the one to direct or teach or advise to being more of a back-and-forth conversation partner. Kids really appreciate that and we can get a lot more from kids when we do that.”


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