Years ago I watched a video where a little girl was gleefully playing in her front yard. Her mother was watching her from the porch on a beautiful summer day. The little, 3 year old girl wandered toward the road. The mother yelled from the front steps, “Don’t go in the road dear!” The girl looked back at her mother with twinkling eyes and continues to walk along the curbside with a small ball in her hands. Her mother shouted again, “Stay out of the road!” The girl took a few steps back into the safety of the grass and then dropped the ball. It rolled off her foot and into the road. Without a thought, she ran out to gather up her ball. Then came the dramatic, slow motion rescue of the girl’s mother. She scooped her daughter up in her arms just before she stepped into oncoming traffic that flattened the ball. The little girl looked at the ball with tears in her eyes as her mother gave her a gentle shake and scolded her, “I told you not to go out into the road! Never go in the road! You never listen! Why can’t you listen and do what I ask?” As her mother aggressively pulled her to her chest for a robust hug, the frightened little girl spoke timidly, “Mommy?… What’s a road?…”
Too often I see parents and children that are hurt, angry or indifferent towards one another simply because their interactions are full of miscommunication. They don’t intend to hurt or offend, but the child’s interpretation of what the parent is saying is far different than what their parent intended, or vice-versa.
Like in the opening story, we scream, “Don’t go in the road” when our child doesn’t even know what the road is. We share thoughts, requests and ideas from such different perspectives that that our children may struggle to follow through, not out of spite, but because they think we are saying something different than we think we are saying. Children cannot read our minds, and our idea of a clean kitchen may not be their idea of a clean kitchen. The greatest remedy to these miscommunications is to give clear verbal expectations and instructions, use an appropriate vocal tone and incorporate non-verbal messages that send the right messages.
The following three strategies will facilitate better results when communicating with our kids.
1. Give clear verbal expectations and instructions (remember perspective and interpretation):
My wife and I have found that when we take a night out and get a baby sitter, if we are not very clear and specific with our instructions for the baby sitter, we are often disappointed when we return home. If we want the kids in bed and the house clean when we get home we need to say so. Things that we thought were common sense as parents didn’t always translate into general practices for other people. We recently came to realize after a date night that the disappointment we have experienced in the past was due to our own lack of clarity. Before leaving for our date we gave the sitter specific instructions and then a list with the same instructions. We came home pleasantly surprised to find every item completed. We learned that when the baby sitter was shown what we expected, rather than just assuming that she knew what we expected, we got the result we wanted.
I often play a game with clients and their parents that helps them practice giving clear and specific instructions. It’s called “can you draw what I’m drawing” (I know, not a very creative name.) For a full description of the game, check out my recent article.“5 Specific Examples for Applying Play as Discipline” In this exercise both parent and child are required explain how to draw a similar picture to what they are drawing without looking at each other’s picture. This proves to be a difficult task. Parent’s stumble around to find words to explain even the simplest forms and shapes to their kids and then they struggle to interpret the instructions of their child when it is their turn to direct the art work. Not only does this exercise teach parents how difficult it is to give good, clear, understandable directions, it also shows that even the clearest instructions are open to our own point of view and interpretation.
Some things to remember in making instructions and expectations clear include…
- Telling them ahead of time.
- Using words they understand.
- Don’t give too many instructions at once.
- Writing the directions down.
- Demonstrating, modeling and/or helping.
What would you add? (Write in the comments what you might add)
2. Practice calm and kind tone of voice:
“Please don’t eat children.” Please, don’t eat children!” “Please don’t, eat children.” “Please don’t eat, children.” Where you put the comma makes a difference in the message. In the same way, our tone of voice make a huge difference in the message we send to our kids, or anyone for that matter.
Starting at a very young age, children can sense irritation and anger. Emotions are truly contagious and so much of our emotions are expressed through our tone of voice. The sad thing is that it can be easily misinterpreted. Having a friendly, inviting tone of voice can be the difference between your child listening and responding, tuning you out or feeling attacked. When you talk with your child, especially when making requests, stop and listen to yourself, ask the following and adjust your tone as necessary…
- Is my tone threatening in any way?
- Am I using a sarcastic tone that might be misinterpreted?
- Would I like to be talked to the way I am talking?
- Would I be more or less motivated to listen and respond kindly if someone talked to me the way I am talking?
3. Check your non-verbal messages:
I’ve been amazed by my almost 2 year old daughter’s ability to communicate with us despite the fact that until about 2-4 weeks ago she said very few words. For some time, she would get our attention with a gentle touch or a tug on the pant leg. She then proceeded to move her mouth as if she were talking without making a single sound. If I didn’t know any better, I would think that I was going deaf because I saw her mouth move and understood what she was saying but no sound was coming out. It’s incredible how efficiently she has been able to convey, not only feelings and general ideas, but specific directions and requests. Sometimes, it has even felt like we were actually conversing. Every bit of communication with her has been non-verbal. She used dramatic gestures, pointing, facial expression, acting and various other techniques to tell us a multitude of things.
There are some simple things we can do to have more open and inviting communication.
- Assume a more open posture. Arms folded or crossed legs expresses being closed or less interested.
- Relax. Being tense portrays irritation or other negative feelings.
- Eye contact shows genuine interest in what your child is saying.
- Square up your body toward your child when you talk, or better yet, knell or crouch to their level. This communicates that you are giving them your full attention. This also makes a silent request that you expect them to pay attention to the conversation as well.
- Lean in. When we are truly engaged in something, we naturally lean in to it. We can display greater commitment and interest by leaning in.
The greatest remedy to miscommunication is to genuinely seek to understand our children’s perspective; to put their little shoes on our feet and walk a mile or two again. If we do, we will use clear verbal expectations and instructions they can interpret correctly from their perspective. This technique will be enhanced if we practice a calm and kind tone of voice and check our non- verbal messages. Remember to use the TRU ruler and ask in regards to our communication, “Am I teaching what I want them to understand by my communication? Am I building the relationship with this communication? Am I upgrading myself and challenging my own personal growth with my communication?” When our communication is TRU, it helps us to dodge bullets and build cycles of healthy communication that will serve our families and our children throughout their lives.
Question: What do you feel are the most important elements of effective communication?
If you liked this article, and know someone who would benefit from it, please LIKE and SHARE it on Facebook, other social media or just send them an email. You may also like the following articles. “The Value of Perspective” or “5 Specific Examples for How to Apply Play as Discipline” or any of the articles pictured below.
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