The Benefits of Conversational Parenting

Aug 12, 2010Family Uncaged

I’ve tried nearly every parenting method on the market. Sometimes I’ve felt elated that I grew my children Jesus’ way. Other times I worried that I didn’t discipline correctly. I’ve been stern. I’ve been lax. I’ve wavered. I’ve showered with love. But none of those methods captured my children’s hearts or me quite so much as something I’ll call conversational parenting.

In the midst of a rapidly changing culture that embraces the postmodern values of community and authenticity, I’ve realized that some of the top-down parenting methods didn’t prepare my children to step outside our front door. Simply telling my children what to believe or how to act did not necessarily help them navigate the real world. Welcoming my children’s thoughts through questioning and listening not only validates their worth, but is reminiscent of the way Jesus prepared His disciples for their journey.Peripateo Parenting

Jesus demonstrated the beauty of a conversational approach to life when he walked along the road with His disciples, asking questions, listening, and telling stories. The common Greek word used for this walking around is peripateo. Jesus embodied this peripateo spirituality as he journeyed down dusty paths, encouraging his friends. Peripateo has two meanings, however. The other meaning connotes the manner in which we conduct our lives. The Apostle Paul used this word frequently: “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Philippians 3:17). Conversational parenting encompasses both. We walk with our children, talking about life along the way, and we show them how to love Jesus by the way we walk.

What does conversational parenting look like?

Walking with our children, demonstrating how to live a life for Jesus—both sound ideal, but what do they mean? How do we practically engage our children? Four Ways:

1. By Sharing our Stories

In this ever-shifting culture, authenticity has become a prime trait kids long for. And they yearn for authenticity in their homes most of all. How do we model authenticity? By sharing our stories. By asking children to pray alongside us as we worry about the future. By admitting we don’t always have all the answers.

When our family made the excruciating decision to leave France where we were planting a church, our daughter Sophie had the most difficult time. She cried. She railed against the decision. I didn’t have any words that would satisfy her anger. So I let her vent. I tried not to give her pat answers. As she got angrier, I prayed. I felt God say to me to tell her one reason why we were headed back to the States. (We’d kept a lot of the church struggle quiet). I sat her down and shared one of my personal struggles with living in France. At the end, she cried. “I’m so sorry, Mom. I didn’t know you went through that.” Giving her an age-appropriate snapshot of my heart in that moment quelled her anger. My authenticity turned our conversation around.

2. By Encouraging our Children in their own Paths

Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” We often think of that verse this way: I’ll raise my child the way I think he should go. But the Scripture says “in the way he should go.” Conversation opens our eyes to the way God is leading our children. Not a week goes by that I don’t ask, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” Once, Julia responded, “I’m going to be a meat-catcher.”

“A meat catcher? What is that?” I asked.

She rolled her eyes, as if everyone should know what a meat catcher did. “It’s someone who catches meat and gives it to poor people.” Today, Julia scrounged pennies and nickels to collect money for disadvantaged kids in Africa. She toted a little box and made a sign. She’s recruiting her friends to donate. Our conversation, along with a hefty dose of observation, helps me see Julia’s heart. She may just spend her life helping the poor. As a conversational parent, it’s my job to identify that, encourage the unique gifts God has given her, and help her reach her goals.

3. By Dining Together

My friends Phil and Laina Graf are raising their kids in Europe. How do they help their children navigate everyday life in that dark city? By parenting around the dinner table. One evening they discussed an invitation where their daughter had been invited to a weekend with friends in another city, with no parental supervision.

“I knew what choice I wanted her to make,” Laina said, “but instead I chose to listen to her.” While they ate their meal, they engaged in a frank talk about sex and drugs and unsupervised weekends. “If I told her ‘no’ right at the beginning, I would have ended the conversation at that point. We long for our children to be able to create their own decision-making grid so they can establish their own healthy boundaries.” Instead, through a hearty discussion, her daughter decided not to go to the weekend, with the added benefit of emotional closeness with her parents (and a good meal to boot!)

4. By Demonstrating Humility

Isn’t authority what’s needed? To show kids who’s boss? While it’s important in the early years to establish authority, as our children grow up, they move from relating to us as authorities to relating to us as fellow-pilgrims. And as fellow-pilgrims, we stumble in life. Why not be honest about it?

If we can’t share our foibles with our children, if we present ourselves as having everything together, how will our children know we actually need Jesus? A conversational parent apologizes when she loses her temper. She admits she doesn’t know all the answers. She invites questions. Her humble admissions show her children that even parents fail, that children aren’t the only ones who sin. Demonstrated humility shows children how to behave when they’ve wronged someone. And admitting failure, though painful, shows a child how to repair a broken relationship and rebuild trust.

Conversational parenting is a great way to connect deeply with our children, particularly if we practice peripateo spirituality—something reminiscent of  Deuteronomy 6:6–7: “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” As we share our own stories, encourage our children in the way God has shaped them to go, discuss life around the dining table, and practice humililty, we’ll begin to see camaraderie in our homes, and, by God’s grace, we’ll prepare our children to meet the challenges this postmodern culture will throw their way. And all because of good conversations.

This article came from my book entitled, Authentic Parenting in a Postmodern Culture. You can order it here if you’re interested. Right now it’s only a little more than five bucks!