When small talk is a big challenge: Preparing kids for family gatheringsWritten by Catherine Wilson
What's inside this article
Recently a friend and I were reflecting on what Christmas was like for us when we were kids.
“The social gatherings were awful,” she said.
“How so?” I asked, caught by surprise.
“As a child, big family get-togethers filled me with dread,” she answered.
“In so many ways I’d feel thrown in the deep end. Trying to figure out how I’m related to these people, what we have in common, and what we could possibly talk about made me freeze and clam up. As an adolescent, the moody teenager stereotype worked in my favour and I could sit on the sidelines. But I wish I’d had an adult come and tell me, first of all, that it’s okay to feel nervous. And I wish an adult had told me, ‘This is how you can get through the night . . .’ ”
I felt bad for my friend that time with her extended family had caused her such anxiety. But I could identify with her nervousness too. I’m no social butterfly either.
It's a sad irony that the kids who dread these kinds of social settings the most are often the kids who most need to be exposed to them.
Because there’s no avoiding it: becoming comfortable making small talk with others is an important skill for kids to master. And family gatherings are a reasonably safe opportunity for kids to practise these skills.
Of course, not all kids are on the shy side. Some kids need to learn that conversation is a game of give and take, and that they can’t expect to dominate the conversation or be the centre of attention all evening.
So how can we help our kids? Especially in this Christmas season, how can we move the dial a little, so our kids are interacting with others a little more politely, and shy kids are a little less intimidated by the thought of connecting with relatives who are relative strangers?
Curiosity gets the ball rolling
Although, as Christians, we talk a big talk about loving others, maybe we don’t always connect the dots, for our kids, between good conversation skills and caring for others.
After all, polite conversation really is an act of love. It’s all about showing interest in the other person and asking questions in the hopes of hearing their story. And as author David Augsburger put it, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.”
When we’re teaching kids how to make small talk, introducing the concept of loving others by being curious about them is a good place to start. For younger kids, for example, here’s how you could open the discussion and the points you might want to cover:
Did you know that people love it when you are curious about them and ask them questions? It makes them feel loved, because you’re showing you’re interested in them.
When we’re at [_____]’s place at Christmas, you’ll get a chance to start conversations with some of the people there by asking them questions. And they’ll be asking you questions too, because they love you, and they’re curious about what’s going on in your life. It’s called making small talk.
Polite small talk follows a pattern. Someone asks you a question, then you answer it by telling them something good or happy (rather than complaining), then you ask the person a question back.
For example, if someone asks you, “Do you like school?” it’s a bit rude to just say, “No I don’t!” Instead, think of something good you can say about school, then ask the other person a question.
So if you’re asked, “Do you like school?” you might answer, “I like recess the best. That’s when I play _____. What did you like to play when you were a kid?”
Making small talk is simple really: Just always answer a question with a happy bit of news, then ask the other person a question about themselves. And try to keep taking turns asking questions back and forth. That keeps the conversation going, and both of you have a chance to say something.
It’s a good idea to think ahead of time about things others might be interested in talking about, so you can ask them questions they’ll enjoy answering.
For older kids, you could approach the topic along these lines:
Do you worry about how you’ll find things to talk about when we go to [_____]’s place? I know I worried about these sorts of things when I was your age. Can I share with you some secrets about making small talk?
Making small talk is like a game. The more you practise it, the better you’ll get at it. It’s all about showing someone you’re curious about them. People feel loved when someone shows they are genuinely interested in them. To get conversations going, simply ask the other person a question, then listen carefully to what they have to say. Often something in their answer will give you an idea for another question to ask, or something you’d like to tell them about yourself before you ask them another question. Some people call this “conversation threading.”
You’re not alone in this. The other person involved is usually trying to keep the conversation going too. You can help the other person by giving more than just a one-word answer to their questions. And by the way, it’s best to keep your answers positive and uplifting. Getting into heavy or divisive topics isn’t considered polite in a social setting.
Can I tell you another secret? I never go into a new situation unprepared. I always think ahead of time about questions I could ask and some topics I could discuss, to help get conversations started.
Setting kids up for success
It’s not phony to equip your kids with some talking points ahead of time – it’s smart. And it will help nervous kids relax a little.
Remember that your kids may not recall much about their extended family. Do they need to be brought up to speed on who’s related to whom, who’s passionate about certain hobbies, and any news that might be a natural jumping-off point for conversations? For instance, did someone in the family change jobs, change schools, win an award, renovate their kitchen, travel abroad etc.? Having a little background can help kids plan good icebreakers such as:
- I remember mom saying that you took a trip somewhere recently, but I don’t recall where you went.
- Mom said she saw on Facebook that you . . . /Mom showed me that funny Instagram reel of you . . .
- I heard you have a new puppy. Is it behaving itself?
If there’s anything you don’t want your kids to bring up, now’s the time to discuss that. It might prevent your kids blurting out something like, Uncle Dan has a new girlfriend? How come? Don’t we get to see Sarah anymore?
If there’s an elephant in the room that really does need to be addressed, teach your kids how to help the other person feel comfortable by simply acknowledging it, then moving on to a lighter topic. For example:
- I’m sorry that your dad’s away over Christmas. That’s gotta be hard for you, but I hope you’ll have a really fun night tonight. What would you like to play?
Also make sure your kids are clear about expectations around cellphones at the social event. When and where can they use their phone, and for how long? If you allow your kids to bring their phones out during mealtimes in your home, make sure they know that won’t be appropriate on this special occasion.
Anticipate likely scenarios
Many adults aren’t particularly creative conversationalists, so you can almost count on your kids being asked some of the usual questions that come up at social events. It might help to prep younger kids ahead of time by role-playing a little, so they’ll learn how to give more than one-word answers to predicable questions like these:
- Are you enjoying school?
- Do you like your teacher?
- What’s your favourite subject?
- How old are you now?
- What do you like to do for fun?
- What do you want to do when you grow up?
Vacation plans are usually a good starting point for conversations, because almost everyone has them. Help your kids come up with questions that explore some other universal topics too, for example:
- Do you have any vacation plans for the coming year? Where would you like to go, if you could? What makes that place so special for you?
- Do you have any big plans for the new year?
- I have a new chore to do, Grandpa. I help by ______. How did you help out when you were a kid?
- What’s something funny that once happened to you, Grandma?
- Have you seen that funny video that’s trending online about . . .?
- Who do you follow online?/Do you follow any YouTube channels?
Commenting on something in the environment around you always sounds natural. For example: I love this Christmas decoration. Does it have a story behind it, Aunty?
Teens are hyper self-conscious and abhor settings that make them feel even more awkward than usual. But sometimes it’s more than that. Teens and young adults can often be anxious about family gatherings because they’re not sure how to handle questions that stray into uncomfortable territory. Who wants to reveal, while passing the mashed potatoes, that they’ve just been dumped by their boyfriend or let go from a part-time job, or that they’re bombing their first year of university? Even commonplace questions that are standard fare at the dinner table can nevertheless hit a nerve – questions like, “How’s that degree going to help you in the future?”
Adolescents should be reassured that they don’t have to share more than they want to, and we should make sure our growing-up kids are equipped to protect their privacy.
So how can we do that? Once kids have learned to make small talk by being curious about someone else, teens are ready to learn that there are loving ways to deflect curious questions from others.
As before, it’s about preparing in advance. We can get involved by helping teens prepare polite, upbeat responses that protect their privacy, if necessary, and help the conversation move on to something else.
Here are some examples:
How's university life?
Answer: To be honest, it’s tougher than I expected. I feel like I’m still trying to find my footing. However, I really enjoy _____ and I’m amazed by what I’m learning about _____.
How’s that degree going to help you in the future?
Answer: Right now I’m just enjoying the ride / trying to keep my head above water / keeping my options open. But I’m excited about what doors the Lord may open for me. Have you ever seen the Lord open doors for you unexpectedly?
- Possible responses to questions about an adolescent’s romantic interests:
I hang out with a number of different friends and I’m content with that for now. Do you have any friends from years ago that you still keep in touch with?
Actually, there is someone I’m praying about right now but I don’t know how things will turn out so I don’t want to say too much. If there are any exciting developments, I’ll be sure to let you know!
I thought there was someone, but it didn’t work out. Honestly, this isn’t how I thought Christmas would look for me. Can we please talk about something else? What’s new in your world?
When teens quickly change the subject, adults should be able to recognize the implicit This is uncomfortable signal and move on to safer topics. Unfortunately, however, some may not be so polite. Kids may need to learn how to stand their ground in the face of persistent questions by politely but firmly adding something like:
Thanks for your concern but I’m sure it’s all going to work out in the Lord’s timing.
Or tackling the situation with humour:
- You’ll need to guess my PIN number to unlock that much personal information!
Let’s be honest: we desperately want our kids to be well-mannered and considerate when they’re with relatives, but we should celebrate small gains. And we need to remember that our kids don’t have the social stamina that we do. If you have a socially anxious child, they’ll find making the effort to converse with others especially exhausting. So if you promise your kids “It’ll only be for two hours,” be sure to keep that promise, and it’s a good idea to ensure your kids have somewhere quiet they can retreat to if they need it.
Finally, we should reassure our kids that no one expects them to be a skilled communicator at their age, but their relatives will appreciate their efforts.
Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2023 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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