Big Topics Are Brain Food For Kids

conversation with kids, talk about big stuff with kids, dinner table conversation,


Just try talking about an issue of substance in front of your kids. If they’re like mine, they dig right in with questions and opinions. That’s what makes dinner table conversation so lively.

No surprise, research says that family discussions about current issues boost kids’ reasoning and mathematical skills. Unlike more casual chats, conversations about social and political concerns help kids make sense of big concepts including numbers. That’s because parents tend to give examples, use real life mathematics, and ask children to think for themselves.

In our house, family blather often includes topical issues but the study reports very few of these conversations are taking place between kids and parents around the world. In the 41 countries studied, they happen less than once a month for 58 percent of children. Interestingly, the impact of family conversation is greater in more affluent countries where young people are blessed with the resources for learning such as books but have less time with their parents. In these countries more family involvement makes a striking difference in learning.

The study’s author suggests talking to kids about oil spill volume and asking them questions about clean-up methods, but there’s no need for a despair-laden quiz session. Open-ended discussions can translate to areas of interest to children. Often such conversations naturally touch on the math, science, history, and ethics of any concern society struggles to resolve. The big issues don’t have easy answers but they do make great topics, even if we talk about them around the table while still chewing.


Laura Grace Weldon is the author of Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything. She lives on a small farm with her family where they raise bees, cows, chickens, and the occasional ruckus. Laura writes about learning, sustainability, and peace for print and online publications. Connect with her at

Laura Grace Weldon

About Laura Grace Weldon

Laura Grace Weldon is a writer, editor, conflict resolution educator, and marginally useful farm wench. She is the author of Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything. She lives with her family on Bit of Earth Farm. Check out life on the farm at and keep up with Laura’s relentless optimism at

8 thoughts on “Big Topics Are Brain Food For Kids”

  1. This is why family dinner time is so valuable. I always start around the table with “How was your day?”. If there is another adult with the kids and I then we try to sneak in a current event. As a rule I feel that kids are generally nosy creatures, they are always eager to jump into a conversation and offer their opinion.

    Recently my middle child (10) came home from school and said a classmate told him there are no jobs in America anymore! Well that started a great conversation and you what? My kids all had great ideas to make jobs, very creative and imaginative in fact!

    Great article, thanks for sharing!

  2. You add a good point here Stephen. Conversation with our kids really helps to correct often frightening misperceptions our kids pick up from the media and their friends. If we don’t talk often and freely, they don’t become accustomed to bringing up such things. Now we just need the ideas from innovative kids to fix the economy!

  3. My oldest daughter is almost 6 years old. Today I told her that a woman was shouting at a politician on the television because she didn’t have enough money to buy things for her family. We talked about what she needed to buy for her family and it ended there. Initially, I joked that the woman was shouting about something else, and I felt I was trivialising my daughter’s question. So I told her the truth without obviously describing the anguish the mother was experiencing at this time. What do you think of what I did?

  4. @ Maria- I am glad you took her question seriously. Children are usually serious even though they are cute. In my experience theyappreciate being listened to and getting clear, brief, simple, honest answers to their questions, and it sounds like this is what you did. I think it is ok to say to a young child something like “I think that lady is yelling because she is angry. I don’t like yelling when I am angry, I try not to.” and then if she asks wh the woman is angry saying something like “she doesn’t have enough money for the things she needs and she thinks that man should help people like her who need money and he isn’t” I have found, time and again, that having to distill ideas for children helps me distill them for myself.

    I have seen children get anxiety from the news, so I avoid having it on around them when possible. The “news” on TV generally emphasizes tragic and awful news, which gives me anxiety too if I see enough of it.

  5. I think it’s good to be truthful within the limits of a child’s understanding. They need to trust that we’ll answer their questions honestly and seem to have amazing radar for glossed over or perked up truths.

    I have to agree with Amber, it’s really important to filter what comes into your home, especially when your kids are young. Have you heard of “mean world syndrome?” It’s a twisted, cynical world view stemming from exposure to the negative slant of media. Here’s some info:

  6. Yes I try to keep very upsetting images off the TV when my children are around. I am trying to educate my husband to do the same.

  7. We, also try to avoid watching news around my almost-6 year-old son, but we don’t shy away from having heavy discussions, or even arguments around him. My husband’s parents never had a disagreement in front of him, and when we were first married and had our first argument (13 years ago), he thought that meant we were going to get divorced! We don’t have knock-down-drag-out fights, but we are both passionate, and each voted for a different president in ’08. So we discuss, and our son will ask “Mom, what does __ mean?” And we always try to answer him honestly and simply, without “dumbing it down.” I agree with Amber, that explaining things to my kids helps me examine my own understanding and better process information. It’s good to hear that what we’re doing is beneficial to our kids, too. Thanks for the article. :-)

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