Family can be described as a tree—each member grows in a different direction, but all have the same roots. Every now and then, it may feel as if the closeness of the family has dwindled. That’s when it is most important to find those roots and use them to reconnect. There is no better time to do this than while walking together.
On a physiological level, walking enhances the quality of our conversations by increasing the brain’s ability to be creative, focused, and empathetic. By getting your kids outside and walking together as family, you create opportunities to bring the conversation to a deeper level. In his article, The Power of Walking Conversations, conversation Architect David Baum says it best: “In the act of moving forward together, something in our nature is affected. If we’re lucky, we can be reshaped or deepened by the conversations that happen when we move. If we are really lucky, we can be transformed.”
As we get ready for Texas Walks on November 8, here are some helpful tips for getting the most out of a family walk-and-talk.
Tip #1: Listening is Key
For richer conversation, researchers recommend spending 25% talking and 75% listening. Active listening means focusing on the message from start to finish, rather than interjecting or letting thoughts wander. It can be easy to slip into a pattern of listening to reply instead of listening to understand, especially for loving parents who are eager to jump in with solutions when kids are struggling or seize on teachable moments as they arise. The thing to keep in mind is that it is harder to enter the deep-zone if a child feels shut down or dismissed before they are heard. No matter how the conversation starts, listen attentively and avoid blanket responses like ‘That’s cool, honey’ or ‘No way, really?’ Instead, take the time to hear what your child is saying and create a thoughtful, reflective response that signals you’ve connected with what they have to say.
Tip #2 Silence is Golden
It may seem counterintuitive, but embracing silence is vital to connecting at a deeper level because it signals a high comfort level with each other. All-too-often, we fill the air with whatever comes to mind in order to avoid an awkward silence. It may be tempting to do this on a family walk in an attempt to keep kids from getting bored. However, from the silence comes an open line of communication for the heavier topics to emerge. Jamming that communication line with undesired small talk leaves no room for deep talk to happen. If you notice a topic drawing to a close, don’t scramble to find something else to maintain momentum. Embrace the silence for a minute or so before moving on. That silence may be just what your child needs to open up.
Tip #3 Wording is Important
For parents, concern can be mistaken for criticism by kids, especially once entering teenage-hood. Teenagers are constantly balancing the line between their need for independence and dependence. Pair that with elevated levels of insecurity, and you get a challenging partner for deep conversation. Ironically, the struggles of teenage life pose no greater necessity for vulnerability between parent and child. Breaking the barriers that teenagers build with age can only be done with the help of trust and carefully-chosen words. Which sounds better: “You messed up” or “That could have been done differently”? Teenagers are oh-so talented at reading into messages and interpreting them in a not-so positive light. That is why preparing questions ahead of time can help set a non-judgmental tone to glide more easily into the harder topics.
Tip #4 Get on Their Level
We have all opened up to someone we thought would respond with empathy but instead gave only sympathy. Sympathy means feeling pity for someone else’s misfortune. Empathy means being able to share and understand their pain. Empathy is the heart of all intimacy and trust, including parent-child bonding. However, empathy requires you to not look down on the one confiding in you, but rather get on their level and say “I’ve been there.” A child needs to see that their role-model parents can relate to their struggles. Vulnerability is a two-way street; keeping your guard up and expecting your family to remain open will create roadblocks to a heartfelt talk.
Tip #5 Small Steps, Big Progress
If family walk-and-talks are new to you, it can be confusing as to where to begin. Obviously, jumping straight into the meaning of life can feel a little unnatural. So rather than diving in head-first, allow the conversation to start small and grow deeper over time. If you don’t get to the heart of a topic by the end of your first walk, schedule another one soon after. Keep the communication open and non-judgmental, and eventually, your child may start to reveal more in their answers. If you have trouble getting the conversation going, here is an article with more than enough conversation starters to get your family going. (Just remember tips one through five as you try them out.)
Acting on these tips might feel a little clunky at the beginning. But just like walking, conversation gets easier over time. And if you keep at it, your family walk-and-talks will find a rhythm – and your family connection will be strengthened in the process. If you’re looking for a sign that it’s time to take up walking as family activity, there is no better opportunity than Texas Walks. Hundreds of families like yours will be doing the exact same thing on November 8th. So pledge to get stepping and start talking together as a family! Share the outcome of your family walk with us @itstimetx.