How to Have Meaningful Conversation with Your Child: 5 Useful Tools to Raise Resilient Children and Build Strong Relationships

How to Have Meaningful Conversation with Your Child: 5 Useful Tools to Raise Resilient Children and Build Strong Relationships


A parent’s ability to create shared meanings with their child about culture and family belief helps establish common ground on which a relationship is built. Meaning making happens over a lifetime, and each parent-child interaction is a new opportunity to create additional common ground. During the preschool years, family dinner and shared book reading are two activities through which parents and children are often encouraged to interact. Here are five tips to make the most out of these activities.

What are 5 Tools for Meaningful Conversation?

  1. Reminisce
  2. Encourage Children to Ask Questions
  3. Incorporate Imaginative Storytelling
  4. Ask Logic-based Questions
  5. Ask Imaginative Questions

Here are some ways to work these tools into your day.

Dinner Time Conversations

Family dinnertime conversation can provide a productive medium for child’s positive social and emotional development. An important part of the process to encourages the development of shared meaning during dinnertime conversation includes the back and forth nature of conversation about shared experiences while encouraging children to pose their own questions. Alternative to a lecturing-styled interaction from parent to child, a study of 40 families’ dinnertime conversations found that children who asked more questions during reminiscing had more resilience.

How Do I Incorporate Reminiscing in Dinner Conversation?

Dinner table conversations are an important way in which parents help children to develop emotionally, internalize experiences and develop identity. During dinnertime conversation, families may co-construct narratives. Families may recount their individual and shared experiences, and parents may provide, request, confirm and negate information from children to help create a shared meaning. Parents tend to have a similar internal style of reminiscing which is consistent across children and over time. Research on dinner conversations shows that parents have different styles of elaboration, and some parents tend to use more questioning, prompting and cueing, while other parents might prefer a style of lecturing or redundant questioning. Parents who use redundant questions tend to ask the child to answer a question for which the parent already knows the answer. In this way, the parent maintains control over the child’s answer, as there is only one possible right answer for the quiz.

Why Should I Reminisce with Emotion?

The parent’s elaborative style when reminiscing is related to children’s resilience. Children’s social-emotional well-being is improved when parents provide more elaborative detail and engage their child in recounting the past. Early research suggests that portraying appropriate emotions during conversation fosters children’s resilience. Thus, displaying the appropriate emotion related to an experience might help children to assign appropriate emotions to experiences and thus assist in socially acceptable responses.

If the emotion displayed by the parent during the recount is discordant from the emotional response displayed by the child, then the child is learning to incorporate the perspectives of others. For example, when recounting how the family dog ate a box of chocolates left on the child’s bedroom floor and thus got sick in the child’s bedroom, the child may display anger toward the dog. The parent may help the child reframe the child’s reaction by displaying pity for the dog and attributing the dog’s behavior to uncontrollable forces (i.e., the dog did not know any better, was attracted by the smell and then got a belly ache) and may help the child to take responsibility for the negligence in leaving the chocolates on the floor where the dog would be tempted to eat them. In this way, the parent is helping to teach the child to reevaluate causal pathways which, according to attribution theory, will help elicit differential emotional and behavioral responses.

How Do I Encourage Children to Ask Questions?

“What’s on your mind?” When children encounter a gap in their knowledge, formulating the appropriate question to resolve the discrepancy results in a deeper internalization of the knowledge gained. “Unlike information that children might come across while engaged by something else, or information that other people offer when children are not ready for it (information that might be ignored or misinterpreted based on the children’s current conceptual structures), in theory children’s questions get answers exactly when the children can use them most, when they are open to the information, and when they are trying to resolve a state of disequilibrium” (Chouinard). In essence, the use of questioning predisposes children with focus to accurately receive the message and the will to accept the message in order to resolve the disequilibrium within the child’s cognitive pathway. Thus, while encouragement of question posing leads to more efficient congruency between parent and child, discouragement of question posing during a time of child’s deficient understanding is likely to promote perceptual difference.

What is Imaginative Story Telling?

In addition to the reminiscing of factual occurrences, family dinnertime conversation can include the imagination of hypothetical events. One only needs to spend an hour with a child to learn that their thoughts are filled with superheroes and candy cane lanes, otherwise termed ‘childish fantasy’ of “fairy tales and fantastic stories”. The fact that children cultivate and utilize imagination early in development is recognized. Researchers postulate that there are two types of cognitive behaviors: those based on recollection and those on imagination. Imagination indisputably helps children experiment internally with the unknown, but there is tension in the theories about its role in development as well as its function in adulthood.

What is Imagination

Piaget described the imagination as the opposite of reality, filling in gaps to create a complete working model of the world in areas where humans can’t find reason or verifiable reality. Paul Harris defines it as a process to produce alternatives to reality, preparing us for what could have or what might happen. However, Vygotsky’s work, termed as an expansion model describes the imagination as an adaptive process which allows us to use meanings associated with components of past experiences in preparation for future experiences in a way that expands our world of possibilities. In this way, imagination allows us to explore our relationship with the world. Indeed, every part of our cultural existence was born from someone’s imagination.

How Was Your Day?

Memories are not stored as whole recorded events, but are processed into parts and annotated with meanings and emotions. It is not necessary for children to store each day with one overarching meaning; children can differentiate between good and bad parts of a day, breaking and storing them as building blocks. Thus, through narration, parents are assisting children with a process known as disassociation. Through combinational re-association, various building blocks can be recalled and recombined in order to create alternatives to reality. All parts of fantasy are simply recombination of experience, sometimes broken into the minute elements or concepts and then rebuilt into a fantastical scenes, drawings or narratives.

What are the Four Laws of Imagination?

Researchers establish four laws of imagination. Within the first two laws, are that imagination is dependent on the richness of one’s experience, but that experience can either be first hand or vicarious. In fact, it is our imagination which assists us to consider and process the experiences of others. Thus, children listening to their parents recount an unshared experience can still create shared meaning of that experience through the use of their imagination. The third law states that imagination is strongly tied to emotion, in that one influences the other, even suggesting that imagination is an internal expression of feelings. The final law of imagination relates to the execution of what was imagined. For example, guided by parents’ recall and suggestions of alternative outcomes, a child can imagine reacting in a different way the next time the dog misbehaves, first evaluating the cause and personal responsibility for the dog’s behavior. If the next time, the child is able to modify his behavior and execute what was imagined, then this closes the circle between imagination and experience, leaving a trail for recollection and further disassociation. In this example, the product of the imagination was behavior, although the product could also be the invention of an object (e.g., designing a barrier to keep the dog out of a room) or art form (e.g., drawing a picture to express emotion).

What’s her suggestion?

Bricolage is the common phenomenon in which children can effortlessly answer absurd questions by combining tiny bits of cultural elements in order to generate inventive answers. For example, if you asked a four-year-old how to slide down a hippopotamus, you might get an answer something like, “first I would put butter on him to make him slippery, and then I would slide down his teeth and off his tail into the water!” Butter, slipperiness, teeth, tails and water are all elements retrieved from the child’s memory which were quickly and effortlessly recombined, held loosely together by reason, to create an answer to the question. As adults, we may not be able to follow the reasoning behind how the child would travel from the teeth to the tail, but asking the child to clarify would likely result in more colorful, fantastical explanations.

How Does Imagination Develop

Children are drawn to imaginative play. Parents can participate by guiding children’s learning through imaginative or hypothetical discussions.

How Can You Make a Difference in the World?

Raise creative, intelligent, thoughtful children. It is hypothesized that emotional development is related to the cultivation of imagination. As imaginations evoke feelings, spending time imagining helps children test and experiment with emotional reactions to hypothetical situations. Imagination also motivates behavior to create and to solve problems for which we cannot readily adapt, and thus assists in the development of reasoning and intellect.

Why Does My Child Like Imaginative Play and I Don’t?

One possible reason that young children prefer creative play as a past time is that acting out imaginary events helps them sustain a flow of thought, binding many elements of a rationalization together into a sequence, which could be difficult to maintain in one’s head. Adults might write down their thoughts, creating connections which justify each conclusion from the last, thus building a bridge to new ways of thinking. For children, however, written language develops much more slowly, and although adults may synthesize information through writing, children synthesize information through play or imagination.

How Can You Foster Imagination?

For example, when children are given directions which do not contain enough information to complete a task, they have hard time recognizing that information is missing through reading or hearing the instructions. However, if children are asked to act out instructions, they are much more readily able to deduce that the instructions are insufficient to complete a task. Imagination is fundamental for cognition, especially for the purpose of problem solving.

Why Doesn’t My Older Child Like Imaginative Play Any More?

As children develop higher levels of reasoning and intellect, imagined experiences are more readily restrained by likelihood and rationale. At younger ages, bits of cultural experiences are recalled and strung together through feelings, with only loose logical bonds. Although imagination becomes more restrained by reality as children grow, it continues to develop, and adults generally have richer imaginations born out of richer experience which feed greater number possible recombinations.

What Stops Imagination?

It is not known why the level of restraint one develops on the imagination varies between adults, but experimenting with what is not but could be requires a certain level of risk of failure. Rationale must be built to support imagination so that what is visualized can become reality, and fear of “being wrong” may inhibit some from dreaming. As children learn about the social consequences of being wrong, perhaps some develop an aversion to creative exploration of the unknown, restraining their imagination to utilize only larger components of experience, which can be more readily substantiated. “The child can imagine vastly less than the adult, but he has greater faith in the products of his imagination and controls them less, and thus imagination, in the everyday, vulgar sense of this word, that is, what is unreal and made up, is of course greater in the child than in the adult” (Vygotsky).

Why Does Emphasis on Achievement Discourage Creativity?

An overemphasis on achievement may lead some children to always strive for the correct answer, losing faith in their own creative “foolish” notions and shifting their focus to products of identified and accepted concepts. As an example, in response to parental pressure for early reading, it is hypothesized that children can become rigid learners and “fail to develop the divergent thinking skills which are necessary for higher level comprehension” (Werner & Strother). Thus, as children restrain their thinking to the fewer, previously identified possible outcomes for a situation, they lose the ability to develop new solutions, dampening their problem solving skills when faced with novel challenges.

Divergent thinking, or possibility thinking is foundational to problem solving, and it is theorized that problem solving skills are necessary for regulating emotions By encouraging preschool children to embrace and develop their imagination, caregivers assist in children’s social and emotional development.

How can you get your kids to open up and talk with you?

Many adults who have tried to immerse themselves into imaginative play with a four or five-year-old quickly realize that following the capricious rules of a child’s whimsy can be a challenging task. So how do many parents help create shared meaning with their child utilizing imaginative processes? Some of the ways are through reading books, telling fictional stories and possibility thinking. Through these mediums, parents draw on the vivid imaginative processes of children to create a shared interpretations of hypothetical social situations, and children’s social imagination has been shown to be associated with positive development.

Reading Children’s Books

Reading children’s books and telling stories may be ways in which parents exploit children’s precocious imaginative processes in order to create shared meaning. Books and stories create an illusionary matrix within our minds upon which parents and children can focus joint attention while being playful and taking turns. These mediums are helpful to merge whimsy and logic in ways which illustrate metaphoric relationships that describe our cultural view of the world.

What is Some Research on Shared Book Reading?

Shared book reading has been studied extensively for its academic values, but less is known about its influence on children’s social and emotional development. One theory suggests that reading helps children build social imagination, strengthening their capacity for relationships. As parents and children read books together, parents and children experience a hypothetical social dilemma and resolution together, and this provides a medium for parents and children to create shared social meanings of experiences.

How Do I Create A Sense of Teamwork?

Shared book reading is a format which encourages parent and child to take turns in a playful and harmonious way, and it is a method through which some interventions help teach parents to be more responsive to their child’s needs. Shared book reading is a unique context within which caregivers can practice responsive parenting, through sharing control for page turning or by sharing interpretations through questioning. Shared book reading can be a dynamic and bidirectional interactive experience, dependent on the method of questioning during the activity.

What are Imaginative Questions?

Adult questioning is valuable for children’s learning, and question posing during book reading results in positive developmental outcomes for children. More and varied types of questioning of their child during book reading is valuable. When a parent asks the child a redundant question, the parent maintains control over the answer, which could be given as right or wrong by the child. Parents can relinquish control by formulating questions with a greater breadth of possible answers, thus expanding the boundaries of the illusionary matrix and creating a safe space for children to take risks with their imagination.

Possibility Thinking is How Einstein Did It

Albert Einstein is famous for creating thought experiments. Questions which begin with ‘what if’, ‘imagine that’, ‘how would’ represent a genre of imaginative questions recently termed as ‘possibility thinking’, as it encourages the child to consider alternative possibilities to situations – like Einstein.

Why Should I Ask Imaginative Questions?

Research is just beginning to explore the potential benefits related to possibility thinking. Creating a safe environment for children to imaginatively answer adult questions also encourages children to experiment with asking their own questions. As supported by social cognitive and attachment theories, when parents ask children questions, children learn to generate questions through imitation and are incentivized to try for the reward of the social interaction with their parents.

How Do I Ask Imaginative Questions During Shared Book Reading?

In a small study in one classroom of 14 preschool children, creative open-ended questions were taped into children’s books, such as The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. Children were sent home with books with embedded question, and parents were encouraged to utilize the questions during book reading activities. While the sample was small, at the end of the study, all of the children preferred the books with the questions taped in, and qualitative feedback suggested that children liked the additional social interaction with their parents. Parents commented that the questions stimulated different kinds of discussion during book reading, which allowed them to listen to their children’s emotions and discover new ways in which their child thought or used imagination. Also by the end of the study, children were formulating more imaginative questions to ask each other or their parents. Possibility thinking could provide an additional technique to engage children in positive interactions with parents while building problem solving skills.

How Do I Ask Imaginative Questions During Reminiscing?

Possibility thinking during reminiscing could invoke the imagination to help identify alternative ways in which reality could have occurred, helping to prepare children for future experiences and to build problem solving skills. Preschool children do not have a repertoire of experiences from which to draw in order to consider alternatives to reality. However, what they do have is a flexible imagination which is not especially restricted by reason. A child’s imagination can join together ideas to represent creative and often fantastical resolutions adults may not have considered. Adults can make use of this channel into children’s behavioral processes by creating safe environments for creative thinking and by responsively following children’s interests. Asking children to think about alternative outcomes and the consequences can help build the skills necessary to regulate emotions and behaviors within a variety of possible circumstances children have yet to encounter.

Other Ways to Build Relationships with Children

Dinner time conversation for recollection and shared book reading for imagination are both important for helping children develop shared cultural meanings, self-identity, and behavioral and emotional control. While these approaches are helpful, there are alternative methods for creating shared meanings through recollection or imagination. There are additional important ways in which parents create shared cultural meanings through recollection or imagination. Here are some other ways.

  • Talking in the car on a drive
  • playing board games
  • dancing
  • crafting


Building Strong Relationships with Children

Building strong relationships with children relies on creating shared meaning with your child. Shared meanings requires processes of both recollection and imagination.

  • Recollection helps us make sense of the world in a chronological way.
  • Imagination helps us make sense of the world in a relational way.

Through reminiscing, we can recall what happened first, next and last, helping us to establish chronological stories, but once we begin to exaggerate or consider alternative possible outcomes, we have invoked imagination.

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