When did talking to kids become so hard?
It shouldn’t take a Ph.D. in Human Relations and ten years of college debate-team experience to communicate with your kids, but sometimes your kids may make it feel that way. Blame social media, Multiple Electronic Screen Disorder, or the way we parent, but the point is that the social landscape of childhood has changed, leaving us to cross a communication territory that seems more complicated than the territory we crossed when we were children. But in reality, the pathway from parent question to child answer has never been straight.
Does this conversation sound familiar?
Parent “How did you get that bruise on your leg?”
Child “It was at school. At recess.”
Parent “What happened?”
Child “We were at recess playing.” Child raises the remote and pushes the volume button on the surround sound a single, calculated notch.
Parent “Yes, but what happened? Did you get hurt playing?”
Parent “Did someone do it on purpose?”
Child “No. We were playing.”
Parent, “I thought you said you didn’t get hurt playing?”
The volume goes up one more notch.
“No, that’s not what I meant,” he says.
Parent, “Can you turn the TV down for a minute?”
Child, “Okay. Wait. Okay. This part is funny. Okay Wait.”
Parent, “Did you just tell me okay, or did you just tell me to wait?”
In 1980’s Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish took their breadth of experience in leading parenting groups, added some perspective based on the work of pioneering child psychiatrist Haim Ginot, and gave us the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. Selling over two million copies, the book spoke plainly to parents with a clear and obvious message: parents have to affirm and support the needs of their children if they are going to break away from patterns of communication that don’t work. Take the dialogue at the start of this article, for example. The parent is looking for a story, an explanation for a bruised leg that makes sense. The questions seem pretty clear, but the story never comes out. The parent’s response is to ask more questions, to get clearer on the facts. Getting the story is the point of the conversation, isn’t it? But what the parent is not getting is the meaning of the behavior, the parent is not engaging the child emotionally, and so the child stays distant. “But the child is being so rude. He should respect his parent and turn off the television when he’s being asked a question.” Perhaps the parent should choose to focus on the child’s manners at that point, but then the real story of where the bruise came from will probably be lost.
The rich texture of talk
Parent-child communication is a complex blend of non-verbal emotional signals, words, and behavior. Patterns of communication are set even before a child can produce words himself or herself. There is a particular, melodic kind of language that parents use with their children that researchers call “motherese,” appearing in parent communication just before a child learns to talk. Motherese language represents both relational and emotional language, and at the same time training the baby’s brain to listen for strings of phonetic sounds as well as breaks between words or sentences. For example, when a mother says “All done, baby’s all done,” she alternates between high and low tones that help the baby’s brain begin to hear each word and sound as separate. Later, the baby will begin to understand that the separate sounds have separate meanings. At that point, parent and child are communicating in-sync, with a rhythm that builds both the child’s language skills and the emotional bond between them. So what suddenly happens once the language learning job is done? Why does this beautiful language synchronicity from early childhood suddenly turn into an awkward tango, with each person stepping repeatedly on the other person’s toes?
At a certain point in our children’s development, we begin to emphasize our jobs as “socializers” and under-emphasize the emotional tone in our communication. The topic of conversations begin to revolve around the behaviors we want our children to show on their own.
Parent “You need to call your grandmother. She’d love to hear about how you did at your recital.”
Child “Seriously mom? She always sounds like she wants to get off of the phone.”
Parent “That’s just because she’s worried about long-distance. It’s something we used to worry about in the old days.”
Child “Can’t I call her later? I’m looking up some song lyrics right now.”
Parent “The problem is that you never call her “later,” she hasn’t heard your voice since last summer.”
This parent-child communication breaks down because the parent stresses the responsibility of grandchildren calling grandmothers, but fails to connect the emotional dots, that calling grandmothers is a way of loving grandmothers.
Often, parents close the doors of communication in ways that seem obvious when they are pointed out to us. It is always a challenge to see what we are doing in the moment, but here are a few examples of parent communication breakers:
1. Trying to repeat our point over and over during the conversation. “I don’t know why I keep having to tell you this, but . . .” This style of communication comes from our worry that the child won’t accept the point we are trying to make. In this dialogue between parent and child, the parent is focused on persuading, not communicating.
2. Pointing out how a child is saying something in the middle of their saying it. “Yes, you have to go with me to the bank, and please don’t use that whiny voice when you’re talking to me.” Correcting a child’s communication is a crucial job that has to be done, but it doesn’t usually have to be done right as a child is expressing a feeling, even a negative feeling about something.
3. “Why-ing” a conversation to death. “Why don’t you want to sign up for baseball? You loved it last year.” Nothing shuts down a conversation with a child faster than asking a question that draws out an “I don’t know” response. Asking a child “why” is a not-so-subtle way of telling him that they just haven’t realized that he is wrong. Maybe the child is wrong, but trying to knock down each statement a child makes by asking “why” is the wrong approach. And further, children are great imitators and will usually start to ask you “why” as well when you try to say no to that extra scoop of ice cream.
4. Signalling the child that you are getting frustrated with the tone of your voice. “I already told you why we had to stop at the store for your brother.” Of course, children frustrate. We feel the frustration, we often give it back to them, then they pass it back to us. This type of communication ping-pong actually serves to escalate negative emotions rather than diffusing them.
These are just a few examples of the ways we undermine our own efforts to communicate effectively with our children, and to help them learn to communicate genuinely and honestly with others. Learning better ways to communicate just takes one step at a time, and doesn’t demand that parents never make mistakes. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk is still a valuable and affordable resource available through Amazon.com or other book resources. Haim Ginott’s Between Parent and Child is also readily available, and helps parents learn to “read” the multiple levels present in each conversation with their children.