Tennis Anyone? Teaching Your Kids the Sport of Conversation

  by Robert Wolgemuth

Playing tennis has always been on my “I-wish-I-were-better” list. I grew up watching the likes of Arthur Ashe and Rod Laver…later to be awed by the prowess of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe…and now Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

I’ve owned a tennis racket since high school and have, over the years through fits and starts, played the game. During one stretch while living in Waco, Texas in the late 70s and early 80s, with nearby access to a tennis court, I actually became quite good…beating a guy (okay, one of three sets) who had played on his D-1 university team.

But the best tennis games I’ve ever played had nothing to do with my cross-court killers or backhand passing shots. It didn’t even have to do with the surface of the court. This tennis wasn’t on grass or clay or on a hard surface.

This tennis was about talking. About learning the skill of conversation. And it was a game I taught my kids. And it wasn’t even original. I got the idea from my friend, Jim Dobson…thus supporting my contention that in parenting it’s not important to be original, only effective. Right?

Anyway, Missy was twelve and her sister, Julie, was nine. Their mother and I were headed to dinner, out with friends. A few weeks before, we had invited a new employee named Martin to live in our guest apartment while his family made plans to move to our town. So while Bobbie and I were going out, Missy, Julie, and Martin were going to have dinner alone at the house…just the three of them.

But there was a dilemma. A problem. Martin was a good man. A godly, high-character man whom I had worked with many years before in another setting. His wife and family were friends of ours, salt-of-the-earth stock. I completely trusted him to be with my daughters. That wasn’t the problem.

The conundrum was that Martin wasn’t what you’d call an easy conversationalist. His idea of a lovely evening was to socialize with a hardcover book or a detailed spreadsheet. Not exactly Mr. Socialize. My girls knew this about him and came to me, worried about what it would be like to sit at the dinner table with him. The thought of three people nervously staring at each other in silence terrorized them.

It was then that Dobson’s tennis idea popped into my mind.

“I have an idea,” I said enthusiastically, but not so excitedly that I might scare them off. “Why don’t you play a game of tennis with Martin,” I continued.

Even though this conversation was more than 30 years ago, I clearly remember the astonished looks on their faces. Tennis?! Their faces spoke without words.

And then I explained the game.

“Tonight pretend that you each have one of those tennis ball baskets on the floor next to your chair. It’s pretend, of course, so Martin can’t see them.”

The looks on their faces did not change.

I continued. “After one of you says grace for the meal, reach down and pull out a tennis ball and hit it at Martin.”

They giggled at the thought. Surely their dad was joking. But I wasn’t. “Martin may catch the pretend tennis ball and put it in his pocket or he may return it. If he puts it in his pocket, then reach down and hit another tennis ball at him.”

Then I explained. “The tennis balls are questions. You ‘hit’ one at Martin and wait for an answer. After he answers, he’s ‘hitting’ the question back to you. You’ll answer his and ‘hit’ it back. If he doesn’t ask you a question, that’s okay. You have a basket full of questions. Reach down and ‘hit’ him another.”

The girls were getting the idea. Turning this dreaded dinner into a game seemed to be catching on. In fact, I got the feeling that they were actually beginning to look forward to it…the dinnertime tennis match with poor, unsuspecting Martin.

Bobbie and I returned from our dinner engagement late. The girls were sleeping. But early the next morning, they came bounding into our bedroom with the news. They didn’t even need to be asked about their evening of tennis fun.

“Dad,” Missy started. “We had so much fun with Martin last night.”

“We sure did,” Julie added.

I was startled and pleased, waiting for the rest of the story.

“By the time dinner was over, Martin was covered with tennis balls!”

Their mother and I celebrated with them.

Today, Missy is 46; Julie is 43. They still remember the tennis story, and — as mothers of teenagers now — they’re passing on their tennis skills to their kids. Dinner with these families is great fun. More fun than a tennis match.

You can try this at home. It works. It’s true. Trust me. You’ll see. And you don’t need to be a professional. Your amateur status will be good enough.


We think the dinner table is a great place to practice conversational tennis; check out these starter questions.

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Picture by borisdenice; Used via Creative Commons license.