How to Have Reflective Conversations with Your Kids

March 27, 2020

HoneyRock is the Center for Leadership Development of Wheaton College. Located in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, HoneyRock provides transformational outdoor experiences for youth and young adults through summer camp, a gap year, retreats, and more.

Reflection is a Key to Growth

At HoneyRock, we’re pro-reflection. In fact, by the end of the summer, we get a lot of staff joking about “let’s reflect on that” with activities as simple as tying a shoe.

We’re okay with that because it means they’re picking up on a key part of the HoneyRock experience: taking time to reflect. In fact, it’s a core value: rhythms of rest and reflection.

There are so many opportunities for us to learn more about ourselves, other people, and God every day if we take the time to see it.

Challenges Create Opportunities for Reflective Conversation

Even more opportunities arise when we’re facing a big challenge. During summer camp programs, challenges look like meeting your new cabinmates, being away from home for the first time, remembering to put on sunscreen, navigating the Challenge Course, and more…

At the time I’m writing this, we’re all facing a big challenge: COVID-19. We’re having new conversations with our kids, adjusting to new rhythms, and facing new problems. It’s posing significant new challenges to all of us. 

While there’s pain and loss, there’s also an opportunity for growth and learning.

The tool I’m about to introduce is a three-step process to having deeper, reflective conversations with your kids. It will help you facilitate growth-oriented conversations with your kids whether they’re 6, 16, or 26.

How do I know? Our full-time staff uses this framework with our cabin leaders during staff training and after a camper session ends to help them learn from successes and failures. Then, our cabin leaders then turn around and use this model with our campers. Every summer, 100+ staff are using this simple, three-step process. 

So with that, let me jump in to explain how HoneyRock staff facilitate reflective conversations. 

How to Facilitate a Reflective Conversation

An “event” just happened. It can be good or bad—in other words, your child could have displayed a character trait that you love seeing. You just saw your child at their best. Or, maybe they really struggled with something…did not follow instructions, had an argument with a sibling, or made a sudden outburst. Perhaps a news story just came on that they saw and seem troubled or interested in. All of these are an “event” or experience that you can use the jumpstart a reflective conversation.

If it’s positive, catch it in the moment! If it’s a tough conversation, sometimes it’s best to let some time pass. You know your child the best, so make the call that’s right for them. When you’re all feeling ready to have a conversation, follow these three steps: 

First Step of a Reflective Conversation: “What happened?”

Start with a simple question: What happened? Stick to the actual events…this happened, and then this, and then that. Tease out the details of your child’s perception of what happened. Here are types of questions we ask during this stage:

  • What do you remember?
  • What else do you remember?
  • What happened?
  • What happened next?
  • What did you see?
  • What did you feel?

It’s not about asking all of these questions or sticking to a certain order. You’re simply having your child paint a picture of what happened.

Second Step of a Reflective Conversation: “So what?”

After learning what happened, start to ask questions that dig into more subjective observations, deeper emotions, and how A connected to B. Questions like:

  • How was your experience different from what you expected?
  • What made you react that way?
  • When X happened, how did you feel?
  • When Y happened, how do you think that made the other person feel?
  • How did your surroundings influence the way you approached the situation?
  • How did the way you were feeling influence your response?

All of these questions might not work for all ages—adjust to what makes sense for your child and the event that just occurred. The big idea here is asking questions that explore connections and chain reactions.

Third Step of a Reflective Conversation: “Now what?”

After you’ve learned what happened (from your child’s viewpoint!) and started to help them get into the details, you get to help them make connections from the past to present and present to the future. Here are some questions you can ask during this phase:

  • What does this mean for tomorrow?
  • What do you want to learn more about related to this?
  • Who else can you talk with about this?
  • How can you avoid this later?
  • How can you try and repeat this again?
  • If you could do this over again, what would you do differently/the same?

A Few Final Words About Reflective Conversations

Notice that we avoid “why” questions—while this gets at motive, it can also put someone on the defensive. When asking “why did you do X” it can often force one to defend their actions rather than look deeper into the chain reaction. Trying to reframe it to start with “what” can allow your child to make connections instead of defending their actions.

We end these conversations by naming what the camper(s) did well—the positives. We also repeat their key takeaways, in their words. By doing this, we’re using their own takeaways to reaffirm key points of growth. 

Having reflective conversations with another person is an art. While we break it down into three steps, it takes a while for it to become intuitive. Don’t expect awesome life-changing reflective conversations to happen overnight. Often, the “nuggets” learned from these conversations take a while to seep into your child’s life. Facilitating reflective conversations can be tough but they lead to awesome growth! We see this year in and year out at HoneyRock.—Rob Ribbe, Ph.D.