Two Cans and a String – Building Strong Connections Through Conversation
by Amy Diller

My sister and I enjoyed long summer days filled with lots of imaginative play when we were kids. We didn’t have walkie-talkies to use in the house or in the yard, so we improvised. On more than one occasion, we would create our own “telephone” system with two cans and a string. With Dad’s help, we would punch a small hole in the bottom of the empty cans, cut a really long piece of string, and tie one end to each of the cans. I would take one can, and my sister would take the other, and we would walk as far apart from each other as we could. With the string taut, we’d talk into our end and listen to each other. Theoretically, the sound is converted into vibrations that travel along the string where they would be changed back into sound inside the opposite can. Whether they really worked or not is debatable, but we certainly felt like our voices were connecting.


Conversation is one of the most important foundational pieces of relationships. We learn about one another, build each other up, offer support, and deepen our connections as we share our thoughts, ideas, and beliefs. As parents, we want our kids to be able to talk to us about anything and come to us first for information, especially as they enter their teen and young adult years. But that connection doesn’t just magically happen. It takes intentionality along the way to establish the kind of enduring heart-to-heart relationship we all want to have with our children.


The following ideas are intended to help you as you lay a foundation. (Keep in mind, you can even use some of these ideas as you interact with your wee ones, too. From infancy, our kids begin to communicate with us through eye contact, coos, gestures, and babbling.)


  1. Stop what you’re doing. When your child wants to talk to you, press pause on what you’re doing and give him or her your full attention whenever possible. There will always be times when you need to ask your child to wait until you’re finished with something before you can listen. 


  1. Get down on their level. When you are face to face with your child, it shows you value and respect what he or she has to say through shared, two-way conversation. It also helps build trust and openness in your child’s relationship with you.


  1. Practice active listening. Focus on what your child is saying, make eye contact, and pay attention to facial expressions and gestures. Little cues from you, like nodding and saying things like “um-hm,” show him or her that you are interested in what they have to say.


  1. Validate their feelings. Children experience strong emotions, oftentimes reacting with more outward intensity than adults in similar circumstances. When your child expresses his or her emotions, give them an empathetic ear. Acknowledge their feelings, restate their emotions (ex – “You felt angry when you couldn’t ____.”), and stay in the moment rather than jumping in to “fix” the situation. Once the emotion dissipates, then you can solve the problem together.


  1. If it’s important to them, it needs to be important to you. Whether it’s something they’re interested in, a problem they’re having, or questions and wonderings, use those moments as a connection point through conversation. The more we listen to what’s important to our kids when they’re young, the more likely they are to open up to us about the important things in their lives when they get older.


  1. Invite them to talk. Nurture meaningful conversations with your child through open-ended questions – those that require more than a word or two to answer. Instead of asking, “How was your day?” try, “What was the best/worst part of your day?” or “How did you show kindness to someone else today?” Dig deeper by saying, “Tell me more,” “How did that make you feel?” and “Why do you think that happened?”


  1. Save space for interruption-free conversation. Regularly spend special time with your child one-on-one. Find something you both enjoy doing, like exploring a nature trail, putting a puzzle together, or going out for ice cream, and set aside time on the calendar for it. Many great conversations happen when you’re involved in a shared activity.


  1. Tackle the tough topics. Let’s face it; kids are exposed to more and more at younger ages than ever before. There may be subjects, like sex, divorce, or death, that make you feel uncomfortable as a parent, but keep in mind that your child will learn these things from someone. First and foremost, make sure that voice is yours.


  1. Teach conversation skills. Many kids like to talk…and talk, and talk, and talk! Teach your child how to listen to others, how to take an interest in what someone else has to say, how to ask questions, and how to take turns. Act it out with them and practice these skills together.

  1. Have fun! There are certainly times for serious conversations, but there need to be just as many focused on fun. Share jokes silly stories, and use conversation starters to get your imaginations rolling. Would You Rather? questions can be a lot of fun in the car and around the dinner table. Laughter draws a family together just as much as deep, meaningful talks do.


These are just some of the ways you can practice connecting with your kids through great conversations. It takes practice and patience. At times, you’ll make mistakes, and your kids won’t cooperate. But always keep the end game in mind – shared connection throughout the teen years and into adulthood through these little investments along the way. So, it’s time to gather up a couple of tin cans and find some good quality string because we’ve got some talking to do!