Conversation or control?

Positive parent-child conversations support language development in any language
Positive parent-child conversations support language development in any language

Conversation or control?

One of the things I have found useful in my work with bilingual families is to draw parents' attention to how adult talk projects a particular type of relationship between the parent and the child. One way to look at it is to ask whether the parent is seeking to have a conversation with the child or to control the child's behaviour?

When I read bilingualism forums it strikes me that lot of the talk is about the choice of the language. Which language should which parent speak to the child? This question has two words that I would like to challenge: “which” and “to”. I would replace them with “how” and “with”. It would be more useful to focus on how we speak our language with our child. I assume each of the parents speaks to their child the language that is most natural and fluent to them.

How we as parents project ourselves towards our children in everyday talk unwittingly creates or closes opportunities for speech and language development. During the early years parents can help their child to begin speaking in sentences by having plenty of one-to-one conversations with their child. In this text I use the concept of “conversation orientation”. I will now explain where the concept comes from and why it matters.

Most of us are not aware of our speech habits. Yet talking is not just about what we say, or about the language we use. It is also about how we deliver our speech in relation to others. When researchers record conversations and use a specialized data analysis technique called Conversation Analysis, fascinating things come to the fore.

Conversation Analysis has been used in a relatively small number of bilingualism studies, considering the volume of bilingualism research over all. Even so we have empirical evidence from multiple studies, from several researchers, from different counties and languages, over a period of 25 years. One such study is by Susanne Döpke (1992). Her book is called One Parent One Language – An Interactional Approach.

Döpke studied naturally occurring family talk between parents and their German-English bilingual 2-year-old children. The five families lived in Australia and used the OPOL strategy. She recorded each child twice over a period of several months. One of her findings was the impact of parental conversation or control orientation on children’s bilingual development.

Between 2009-2012 I studied family talk in Finnish-English bilingual school children in London. I saw the same phenomenon unfolding in front of my eyes. In addition many new elements emerged due to the far more complex talk produced by older children.

Talk is about relationships

Döpke found that parents of 2-year-olds tended to have a preference for either conversation or control in their interactions with their child. This was to do with the overall attitude of the parent. Below I draw on similarities between Döpke’s study and from my own research.

Conversation orientation refers to parental behavior that treats the child as a conversation partner. The parent focuses on what the child is experiencing, thinking and feeling. They enquire directly about the child’s point of view. Their genuine interest encourages the child to speak more. This kind of parental behavior creates conversational turn-taking. Same topic is talked about for longer and conversations develop. Varied language, high responsiveness and waiting longer for children to respond are typical of conversation oriented interaction.

When parents habitually behave in conversation oriented way children tend to have good speech and language development. Parental conversation orientation opens plenty of opportunities for the child to practise talking. The child can try to say it again and they can refine their phrases by borrowing from the language produced by the parent.

However, other parents have a preference for control in their conversations with their child. These parents appear to be worried that they may lose control of their child’s behavior. These parents' interaction behavior tends to be more focused on what the child is doing or what they themselves are doing, such as giving a bath to the child. This leads to the parent using a lot of statements, commands and prohibitions.

Control oriented parental behavior constantly closes opportunities of speech participation for the child. Control oriented parents also more frequently do not respond to talk initiated by the child. Just imagine yourself in the child’s shoes. When someone is talking to you in this way, and not responding when you try to talk to them, the only options are to obey or to protest. There is very little space for your own thinking to be expressed and taken into account.

We are not neatly divided into two categories of parents. We all move along the continuum. Control orientated behavior happens momentarily to pretty much any parent. It becomes a problem when it is a habit.

Children respond to control oriented adult behaviour with frustration. I have seen the same frustration in control oriented teacher-pupil interactions, by the way. To be heard the child has to disrupt the communication, hence control orientation is often met with tantrums. Sadly, control oriented adults respond to tantrums with more control and that can escalate, leading to the child being punished for behavior provoked by the adult’s communication style.

Both Döpke and I found that control oriented adult talk had a clear negative effect on bilingual children’s speech and language development in both languages. 

It is good to mention that parental conversation orientation does not mean lacking control over children’s behavior. It is possible to be a formidable conversational authority figure. Most of us can remember from our childhood how safe it felt to be with an adult who truly listened to children, but had the quiet confidence of being in charge. It is also possible to be a conversational adult with no authority at all. That does not feel safe to the child.

On the other hand control orientation does not guarantee authority. It can expose a humiliating lack of authority when control attempts escalate in confrontation. When compliance is obtained through this kind of behavior we might rather describe it as authoritarian. Either way, conflict or authoritarian rule, emotional hurt is evident. Control oriented talk does not build positive relationships.

In my experience most parents can reduce their control oriented behavior considerably simply be coming aware of these two ways of talking with children. There is a sense of healing in having positive parent-child conversations. Trust is built and conversation skills grow.

We are not perfect. When I occasionally slip into control oriented talk with my teenager and the resulting conversation sequence unfolds, I am just kicking myself. I should know better!


TOP TIP: It is useful to spend a day or two just observing our own parent-child talk to find out whether our default position is towards the conversation or control oriented end of the spectrum. We can soon see the impact our speech behavior has on our children's talk. Thinking about our child as a conversation partner and reminding ourselves to be openly interested in their thoughts and feelings will give us wonderful parent-child moments with the bonus of effectively supporting language development.


DISCLAIMER: No diagnosis or intervention on speech or language delay cannot and must not be attempted based on this blog text or any other blog text. This is simply to give readers a concept from research into family talk so that they can reflect on their own parenting interactions. Later in this series there will be another text specifically about speech and language delay, including advice on how to approach professional help.


MORE ABOUT PARENT-CHILD INTERACTION: For studies on young children’s parent-child talk I would recommend looking up authors like Elizabeth Lanza and Sarah Chevalier. I will refer to Lanza’s work later in this series.