Remember the days before unlimited free phone minutes? Three-minute long distance phone calls cost a fortune, so we kept our conversations short and to the point. Fortunately, we now have unlimited phone minutes because my two granddaughters and I often talk for over an hour!
I’m a lucky long-distance grandma. From the time my older granddaughter was three, she learned to dial my phone number and talk on the phone for an hour! She started when her mom (my daughter) needed an afternoon nap during the final trimester of her pregnancy. So I “babysat” Juliet on the phone by making up stories.
Now she’s 12 and wants to tell me stories. Sometimes she’ll read me the latest story she’s written or describe the party she attended or share some details about the 1-year old twins she babysits. Her younger sister, who’s 8, calls to request a story and then rewards me by playing a short piano concert.
During summer they have a lot more free time so our calls have been more frequent and longer. I treasure them because I know our calls won’t last forever. My grandma friends marvel that I’m able to sustain such long phone conversations with my granddaughters and ask: “What’s your secret?”
Some people are born conversationalists. They feel completely comfortable talking to anyone, anywhere. I happen to be one of those people. Others find it more challenging and need to learn some simple skills and practice them. My insatiable curiosity is what drives my conversations. I ask a lot of questions (sometimes too many.) Over the years I’ve learned an effective way to ask questions that encourage conversation — make them open-ended.
We can teach our grandchildren how to be comfortable in conversation by modeling it for them. My older granddaughter is a born conversationalist. She probably could also talk to anyone about anything. Her younger sister, a charmer in her own delightful style, no doubt felt overshadowed by her gregarious older sister. When she was younger, Amelia was quieter and often deferred to her sister during our phone conversations. Now she’s become a wonderful storyteller and stands up for her own time on the phone.
Tips for talking to your grandchild
Whether you’re on the phone or face-to-face, here are some tips for talking to your grandchildren.
Ask open-ended questions. Open-ended questions cannot be answered with one-word answers such as “yes” or “no.” They begin with who, what, why and how? Open-ended questions encourage language, creativity, and imagination. Open-ended questions build a child’s self-esteem by showing them that their opinions, ideas, thoughts, and feelings matter. You want to know what they think. You value their opinion. (You can read more about how to use open-ended questions with children on Susan Syddall’s website Stories and Children.)
Start talking to them when they’re young. You have to build a history and let your grandchild become accustomed to your voice.
Know your grandchild’s interests. Save newspaper articles, jokes and puzzles your grandchild might find interesting.
Share your own experiences. Tell stories of some of your activities or memories from your childhood or their parents’ childhood.
Keep a cheat sheet. Learn the names of your grandchild’s friends, teachers, classes, and pets.
Ask hypothetical questions. Would you rather? If you had one wish? How would you spend a million dollars? Who’s your hero?
Play games. You can even play games on the phone: 20 Questions; Guess what sound this is? Name that tune. Test them on spelling words, math problems, and vocabulary.
Be comfortable in the silence. Feeling comfortable when others are silent is an art. Many people feel really awkward with silence, but your grandchildren may actually appreciate the open time and may find it helps them to open up. If you wait for your grandkids to fill in the quiet gaps, they might appreciate you for allowing them to take the initiative. Like some adults, not all kids like small talk.
Keep the focus on them. As you talk with your grandchildren, make a mental note of the kinds of things they show an interest in and their individual style of communication. Use this information in future conversations to break the ice and get the ball rolling. As things progress, you’ll get the opportunity to slip in a little of your own experiences on the particular topic. Remember to keep the focus on the child and not on your experiences, until they ask for more details.