Ping-Pong-Ping: The Art of Conversation

Dear World’s Okayest Mom,

My 11-year-old son monologues. He gets started on a topic, and goes on and on and on. And on and on. Sometimes he gets really passionate and starts lecturing everyone within earshot about why the topic is important and why he’s right. At first, it’s boring, then it alienates people. I’ve tried to encourage him to have conversations, to pay attention to the cues people are giving him, but it hasn’t changed anything. I can stand up, leave the room, start talking with someone else and he just tags along behind me, yakking the whole time. I don’t want him to grow up into one of those horrible boors that everyone avoids at parties. Help!

— Craving Conversation


Dear Craving Conversation,

Monologuing must be A Thing at this age, because my son is exactly the same way. If I have to listen to another exposition on how zombies spawn on Minecraft, desperate measures will be taken. It makes you understand why past generations used the old chestnut, “Children should be seen and not heard.” But pat yourself on the back for recognizing that kids aren’t born with social skills; learning how to be pleasant company requires the same adult guidance and practice as shoe-tying, knife safety and cursive.

The concept of “conversation” is a bit esoteric for the “I’m-the-center-of-the-universe” tween brain. You need something more concrete and tactical. One of my friends has a brilliant tactic she calls Ping-Pong-Ping. Here’s the concept: conversation happens when you say something (ping), you allow the other person to comment (pong) and then you respond to their comment (ping). Ping is not conversation. Ping-Pong is not conversation. It’s got to go all the way to Ping-Pong-Ping.

This has been brilliant in our house. When either child starts using more than their share of airspace, when my attention starts to drift, I smile and say, “Ping-pong-ping.” That’s their cue to pause and figure out how to include their listener. The best part is that it’s almost like a secret code, so I can say it in public when I notice their listener’s interest flag.

The last two thirds—pong-ping—take some practice. We brainstormed some easy, catch-all pongs, like, “What do you think?” and “Has this happened to you too?” For the final ping, I can sometimes hear the gears in their brain creaking, trying to come up with something that gets them back on their monologue topic when my “pong” has moved the subject along. But they’re getting better with practice.

I love that you said he’s so passionate in his opinions, even if you worry it alienates people. As adults, many (some?) of us know that lecturing people about your right-ness rarely changes minds. Curiosity and finding common ground is more powerful. What baby steps can you take to help him? What if you asked him how he feels when you lecture him about something, like how important it is to eat a vegetable he hates? Does it make him want to eat the vegetable more, or less? What if you reflected back, gently and with love, how you feel when he starts to lecture? I routinely give my son a quick squeeze and kiss and remind him that I would love to talk about how his day went or what he thinks of his new soccer coach, but he really needs to find someone else to discuss the special powers of elves versus rangers.

Then the monologuing becomes my husband’s problem. (Pong! Just kidding.)

Good luck, my friend. Here’s to raising children who are a pleasure to talk with. Someday …

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