How important is it for family members to talk to one another on a regular basis? Communication has been an "issue" in our marriage for a long time, but recently I've noticed that the problem is spreading to the kids as well: it seems that none of us spend any time actually talking to each other anymore. I have no idea how this has happened, and I'm alarmed at what it says about the quality of our family relationships. Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? If not, what can I do to reverse the situation?
Your concerns are on target and your heart is in the right place. As we see it, free and open conversation is essential to healthy family relationships. In fact, we see it as one of the five characteristic marks of any genuinely thriving family: conversation, laughter, time spent together, prayer, and regular family dinners.
Before going any further, it's worth mentioning that your question is a sign of the times. It wouldn't have come up fifty or a hundred years ago. Back then, the pace of life was slower. Families lived, worked, ate, slept, and talked together on family farms or in family-owned shops. Electronic innovations such as computers, cell phones, and texting had not yet replaced personal conversation as the primary means of communicating with other people. Our culture may be making impressive gains in terms of technological speed and efficiency. But we've also suffered tremendous losses in the area of intimacy and the ability to connect at the heart-level.
Why is it so important that moms, dads, and kids talk to one another? First, a theological reason. Speech is a divine gift. It's a vital aspect of the Image of God in man. As such, it's an important part of what makes us human. Through deep and meaningful talk, we become bonded at a level that simply isn't accessible to creatures of any other species. When this happens, we have the privilege of reflecting and sharing in the very life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity was founded upon interpersonal communication and interaction before the worlds began.
We're made in God's image, then. Speech is as crucial to our relationships with one another as it is to our relationship with our Father in heaven. The Lord has created us for intimacy. Conversation is the glue that cements the connection and makes it happen. Deep down inside we all want to know and be known by others, and talking is absolutely crucial to this process.
It's worth adding that conversation has the most beneficial effects when it occurs in the context of physical togetherness. Research has indicated that actual words account for only 7% of interpersonal communication. The rest is conveyed through body language, the face, the eyes, and the tone of voice. This means that in becoming dependent upon electronic communication devices, we have lost about 93% of our ability to connect with one another in a significant way. Thus the importance of being together as a family and speaking face to face.
To put it in more practical terms, family conversation is important because it promotes and bolsters a sense of family identity. It creates an environment of love, acceptance, and belonging. This is important for every member of the household, of course, but it's particularly crucial to the mental and emotional health and development of growing children. Kids need to belong. They want to be part of a group, a team.
We should add that lack of this kind of family identity is one of the key reasons for the growing problems of youth gangs, addictions, pornography, and many of the other social plagues we face in contemporary culture. If young people can't find a sense of belonging with mom, dad, and siblings, they'll look for it elsewhere. By way of contrast, studies have shown that when kids feel free to share what's on their hearts at home, they're less apt to experiment with risky behaviors and far more likely to develop strong character. That's not to mention that relaxed, natural, and frequent parent-child conversation is crucial to the younger generation's spiritual growth and the development of a deep and genuine faith (see Deuteronomy 6:7).
As you've discovered, the catch in all this is that quality family interaction doesn't happen automatically. This is especially true in our busy, hectic, electronically distracted, two-income-family culture. If conversation is going to flourish in your household, it will be because you and your spouse model it in your marriage. It will also be the result of deliberate, intentional efforts on your part to place it squarely at the center of all your family relationships.
The first and most important ingredient is availability. You and your kids can't talk to each other if you're never around at the same time. You won't connect if you're always under pressure to be somewhere else or to put all of your energy into some other activity. If you really want to foster meaningful family conversations, you may need to re-evaluate your schedules. If the frenetic tempo of life is making it difficult to talk, see what you can do to slow the pace.
The dinner table is a good place to begin. Family meals lend themselves naturally to family talk. You can encourage reluctant youngsters to speak by giving them your undivided attention. Practice the skill of active listening. Make a priority of initiating conversation with each child. Use emotion-based rather than fact-based language. In other words, don't get stuck focusing on the things you've been doing or the tasks you have to accomplish. Instead, try to get at the feelings that are bubbling just below the surface of your family members' day-to-day activities. It also helps to have something to talk about – common interests, mutual accomplishments, collective memories, meaningful stories, perhaps even a shared family hobby like biking, hiking, or camping.
If you're looking for ways to prime the pump or break the ice, you might try playing a simple question game around the table. Here's a good example:
- Choose one player to go first. This player must think of a person or thing to be – for instance, a family member, a teacher, a friend, an animal, or anything else that comes to mind.
- Player #1 asks, "Who am I?" or "What am I?" This lets the others know if he's a person or a thing.
- The rest of the players take turns asking questions and listening to the answers until they can guess the answer.
If you want to get a conversation started, stay away from questions that have a "yes" or "no" answer. Instead, try to come up with open-ended questions of a fairly personal nature. For instance:
- What has been the best part of your week so far? What made it so good?
- What has been the worst part of your week so far? What made it so bad?
- Have you been upset about anything lately? How did you handle it? Is there a way you could have handled it better?
- How many different feelings (emotions) have you experienced today?
- What's the most exciting thing you've heard recently?
- How has God helped you this week?
- If you could be anyone in the world, who would you be and why?
If you think it might be helpful to discuss these ideas and suggestions at greater length, call us. Our staff counselors would consider it a privilege to speak with you over the phone. They can also provide you with a list of referrals to trained therapists practicing in your area.
Marriage: Starting a Conversation