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Rebecca Rolland - How to use “Curious Waiting” to connect with your child

This interview is part of How To Get Kids To Listen: Leading International Parenting Experts Reveal Their Best Secrets For Getting Kids To Cooperate, an ebook containing a collection of interviews I did with parenting experts from around the world.

I asked each expert one simple question: What is your best strategy for getting kids to listen and cooperate? and then listened as they shared their best parenting tips and advice.

How To Get Kids To Listen is available for free download here

In this interview with Rebecca Rolland, author, Harvard Graduate School lecturer and speech pathologist, we talk about her technique called Curious Waiting for starting child-led conversations with your children.

Rebecca also shares how using “Curious Waiting” creates deeper connections and relationships with your children, making it easier for them to cooperate when you need them to.

Tags: Rebecca Rolland

Also in this interview:

About Rebecca Rolland

Rebecca Rolland is the author of The Art of Talking with Children (HarperOne, 2022).

She is a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and serves on the faculty at Harvard Medical School. She also served for years as an oral and written language specialist in the Neurology Department of Boston Children’s Hospital and advises the World Bank on curriculum development and workplace learning.

You can visit Rebecca’s website ( here, or read her blog on Psychology Today here.

You can also connect with her on Facebook here

How to use “Curious Waiting” to connect with your child

Rebecca shares a simple, 2 step technique that you can use to create a better connection with your child and jumpstart child-driven conversations.

Sue Meintjes: What is your favorite technique or strategy that is working well for you or your clients, for getting kids to listen, or increasing the chances of them cooperating?

Rebecca Rolland: What I really like doing is something I call Curious Waiting, a technique that has two components.

The first part is about really sitting mindfully with the child. And this can be a child of any age, so anywhere from a very young child, an infant, or all the way through to young adults.

So, you really just sit quietly, stay silent, next to your child, and observe what they’re doing. Notice not just the activity, but also what interests them about the activity. So, you start to follow their attention and notice what they’re playing with, what they’re working on, really even what they’re looking at, and their expression.

You just take five or 10 minutes, and you can even do something quiet in the background like cooking or knitting or something like that.

So that’s just the waiting part.

And then second is the curiosity part. Try wondering aloud about what a child is doing. You don’t need a lot of language or a lot of questions, but really just simple invitations.

“So, what’s that about?” or “Tell me more” or “Oh, what’s interesting about that?” or “What are you trying to do?”

Things like that. Just allow the child to expand on their thoughts and to engage in a conversation with you about what’s interesting to them in the moment about what they’re doing.

I’ve found that that’s powerful just in allowing the child to start driving the conversation. Because we don’t often focus on having a child really lead us in conversation. And just taking one of those moment-by-moment opportunities to start taking a child’s lead and to show them that we really are engaged in what they’re engaged in and interested in what they’re interested in.

And so, I found that to be really helpful just as an open-ended prompt before having any kind of deeper conversation.

How “Curious Waiting” helps you understand your child better and makes them more willing to cooperate

Why understanding your child, and helping them feel bonded to you, sets up a foundation for cooperation going forward.

Sue Meintjes: I really like that. Do you think this type of strategy works for getting your children to cooperate in the moment, or is it more for connecting with your child and making it easier to work with them?

Rebecca Rolland: I think it works for any type of cooperation because what we want to consider is that really, cooperation comes out of a child feeling connected to you and feeling as if you’re on their side and you’re interested in helping them meet their goals also.

Now, it probably wouldn’t work in-the-moment if you are actively trying to get a child to do something else. But even then, I’ve noticed really focusing on, “Well, what is it that my child is wanting to do,” and sometimes helping them with that if it’s something quick. So, say, “Oh, I just want to finish this part of my robot,” or something like that.

Rather than saying, “Well, let’s just shut that down and try to push forward with my objective,” if you can take a few minutes to help your child with their objective, they’re often much more willing to cooperate with you in whatever you want to do.

Sue Meintjes: So, it is about just taking the time to connect with your child, to understand the world from their point of view and what their objectives and goals are?

Rebecca Rolland: The thing is really to realize that when a child feels as if you’re bonded, they want to help you meet your goals also. Set up a longer-term foundation now for more cooperation in the future too.

Sue Meintjes: It sounds like it is about recognizing that your child’s objectives are also important and valid. And respecting their goals.

How to avoid constant power struggles and give your child a sense of control

Why allowing your child to drive conversations gives them a sense of control, which can help reduce power struggles that lead to less cooperation.

Rebecca Rolland: Yes. I think also recognizing that oftentimes children, especially younger children, feel kind of pushed from one place to the other. As if they don’t have a lot of control or that “All of these grownups are trying to get me to do this thing and then that thing.”

My own son is five years old, almost six, and he comes home sometimes and says, “Oh, at school, they tell me to do this, do that, do this, do that.” While that’s obviously necessary sometimes because we need kids to do things, I think that when kids feel like that a lot of the time, it can feel as if they want to push back just to gain some control.

And so rather than having them need to feel like that, really starting with that feeling of, “Okay, we want to open it up to your interest, to understanding kind of what’s driving you.” I think that can give them back that sense of control too.

Sue Meintjes: Yeah, I think it is important to give kids some control, otherwise you get these power struggles that lead to less cooperation.

Rebecca Rolland: Yes, yes. And I think that sometimes we have these power struggles about things that we later realize aren’t very important. In-the-moment we think, “Oh, we need it to be done this way.” But it doesn’t always have to be done that way.

So, I think it’s important that if we are going to have power struggles, that they are over things that really do matter, things which are really important to us as parents, rather than getting in lots and lots of little power struggles.

Why you need to put your phone down when connecting with your child

Sue Meintjes: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Do you think there is anything else parents need to keep in mind about this technique of having conversations with your child?

Rebecca Rolland: I think a lot of parents, me included, struggle with technology and being on our phones as we’re waiting with kids. While they’re playing, we take that chance to check emails or something like that. And I think that’s a tempting thing to do because we’re all very busy.

But I think if we can just put the phone down for a few minutes it really does make a difference and helps the child feel like we really are totally focused on them just for a few minutes. Then we can go back and do something else if we need to get something else done.

But I think that sort of full attention is so important.

The “ABC principles” for communicating more effectively with your child

Sue Meintjes: Yeah, I really like that. In your book you talk about “evidence-based tools and techniques to communicate more effectively with children.” Can you share some tips for talking with children more effectively?

Rebecca Rolland: In the book I talk about three things. And the three main principles are just A, which stands for being Adaptive. Which means to really go with the flow of a child’s mood and temperament.

For example, if they’re feeling very active in the morning, go with that and do more active things or talk then. Or if they talk much more in the evening when they’re relaxing, notice this and go with their flow.

And B is for Back and Forth. That’s just to notice what the balance is between our talking as adults, and then children’s talking, and to make sure that we have a good balance. That it’s not just one person doing most of the talking.

And C stands for Child Driven. That’s the principle where we are trying to think about what is on a child’s mind or what’s sort of fascinating to them, or even what’s worrying them in the moment, and starting conversations from there.

I think if we can keep those three principles in mind, we’re much more likely to have a conversation that feels bonding to us.

How Curious Waiting helps you understand how to motivate your child to cooperate

Sue Meintjes: That sounds very good, thanks. Do you have any other ideas to use these methods and principles to encourage a child to cooperate?

Rebecca Rolland: You can apply this to a lot of other things. Especially if you can link something the child is interested in with something the child has to do.

For example, I have one child that really likes games and competing and trying to win things. So, I can turn things like say brushing your teeth into kind of a game, “Let’s see who can get to the bathroom quicker,” or “Let’s see if you can really make two minutes of brushing your teeth.”

That’s one example of how you can tie a child’s interest or motivation into a task that maybe isn’t so interesting or fun. Now, that obviously wouldn’t work for all kids. It really depends on what a child’s individual motivations are. But the Curious Waiting part really helps you notice what those motivations are.

Sue Meintjes: Thanks, this has been very insightful and helpful. Just before we finish up, is there anything else you wanted to add related to what you shared today?

Rebecca Rolland: The only thing is that I think these strategies are especially important now, post pandemic, when we’re trying to think about how we help children build relationships and feel connected. Especially when many kids are feeling anxious or stressed.

It doesn’t have to be that we do these things all of the time and put even more stress on parents, but I think if we can think about these in kind of little micro doses or just doing a couple times a day for a few minutes a day, it can really help children feel more connected now.

Action steps

Here are my action steps that I got from this interview. I hope you’ll find these useful as well:

  • Try to practice Curious Waiting with your child next time they are engaged in an activity
  • Think of areas where you can give your child more control and power
  • Think of some occasions where you enforced your way of doing things where it wasn’t really necessary, and then set the intention to give your child more control next time
  • Next time your child come talks to you, put your phone away and focus your full attention on your child
  • Try to have a child-driven conversation with your child, without having any of your own agenda except listening to them and their interests
  • Visit Rebecca’s website ( here, read her blog on Psychology Today here, or connect with her on Facebook here

This interview is part of How To Get Kids To Listen: Leading International Parenting Experts Reveal Their Best Secrets For Getting Kids To Cooperate, an ebook containing a collection of interviews I did with parenting experts from around the world.

I asked each expert one simple question: What is your best strategy for getting kids to listen and cooperate? and then listened as they shared their best parenting tips and advice.

How To Get Kids To Listen is available for free download here