How we talk to our children can make a huge difference in how our child perceives and learns to function in the real world. In many ways, almost everything we say to our children is a "teaching conversation." It is through these conversations that they learn how to appraise their thoughts, feelings, actions, and plans.
Many parents are unaware of how they really talk to their children. If you need a reality check, put a tape recorder in the room with you and your child and listen to it later alone or with your spouse. You may be amazed to hear someone who sounds like a drill sergeant using your voice: "Don't do that ... sit up straight . . . stop that ... no ... cut it out! ... be quiet . . . not now ... I mean it! . . . stop acting like that . . . I'm warning you . . . do it this way . . . come on ... here, like this. . . ." Kudos to those parents who have the guts to listen to themselves talk. It takes a great deal of courage to be willing to look at how many times we fail to communicate acceptance to our children. Children who feel unaccepted by us become insecure and under-prepared to face the real world.
Four main communication techniques have a huge impact on how prepared your child is to meet the real world:
□ HANDLING INTENSE EMOTIONS WITH "THE MIRACLE RESPONSE."
Strong emotions are like rivers: you can divert them, but not stop them. You cannot ignore or reason away your child's intense feelings; you must acknowledge them. Try talking to your child using what I call "The Miracle Response": reflecting back your child's strong emotions when he is in the midst of them. When a child is in the midst of feelings of this sort, he is not open to advice or criticism. Accept his unique feelings by acknowledging, identifying, recognizing, and/or re peating those feelings back to him. Convey to your child that you recognize his feeling and (if even for only a moment) feel his pain. This is empathy.
For example, imagine your child just burned himself on the stove after you warned him not to touch it. What your child really needs when he is hurting is to have someone acknowledge his inner pain and give him a chance to talk about it. Accept the way your child is feeling instead of trying to get rid of the feeling. If you say, "Ooh, that must really hurt. I can see how much that hurts you," you are merely observing or reflecting back his own feelings in a way that shows you feel some of his pain. This is what empathy is all about.
On the other hand, many responses are not empathetic. For example, if you were to say, "Oh it's not so bad. It's not even red," your trying to reassure him or minimize his pain makes him feel like you don't understand him. If you say, "Oh, stop crying and being such a baby," you have ridiculed or attempted to minimize his pain by trying to deny his own feelings that are very real to him. If you say, "Shhhh. Everybody is looking; now hush!" you are trying to distract him or make him feel guilty or wrong for having his own real feelings. If you say, "Yes, life is like that. You will have many burns in your life," you give him philosophy when he is least able to hear you and he will feel that you aren't hearing his pain. If you say, "Oh, you poor thing. I feel so sorry for you," you have made him feel pitiful.
Your child must be allowed to feel OK about having and expressing his feelings no matter what he is feeling. Allow your child to express these in the comfort of your presence. Remember, words and feelings are not the same as actions . . . allow your child to express his emotions without fearing them. Acknowledged feelings go away sooner and better than feelings that are denied, criticized, or stifled. The most loving thing a parent can do for a child is to allow the child to expe rience his feelings fully even if this causes you discomfort and pain.
Empathy is not about trying to fix his emotions. Instead, it's about letting him know you have really heard his emotions. When your child believes that you have truly heard his feeling, he will feel understood and will be much more prepared to go out into the real world. Children who feel misunderstood often act out their frustrations on others as they grow up. Empathizing helps a child accept a situation he cannot change.
□ FRAMING WHAT IS HAPPENING TO HER TO MAXIMIZE HER LEARNING.
Properly "framing" life lessons is critical to your child's learning about the world. For example, suppose you spent time throwing the ball with your three-year-old. She will undoubtedly really enjoy her time with you. You will receive more "bang for the buck," however, and build a higher sense of self-worth in your little one if you verbally frame your actions for her. For example, if during and after playing with her you say: "Honey, I really enjoy spending time with you. Right now you are really fun to be with," you feed the growth of her self-esteem and help her understand that when she acts well socially, others enjoy spending time with her. Interpreting this activity for your child makes the experience much more positive for her and helps her see how the real world views her. If you fail to frame her experiences with you and others, she will probably miss many opportunities to understand her and others' actions and feelings. For example, without the above framing he might make a thinking error such as, "My mommy is throwing the ball with me because I cried hard a few minutes ago."
Framing your responses so your child can understand another person's way of viewing things is invaluable. Children who don't often receive a framing of what just happened and why often take longer to learn the lessons of life. Help your child be "lifewise."
□ DESCRIBING INSTEAD OF JUDGING HIS ACTIVITIES AND INTERESTS.
Parents often intrude too much on their kids' interests and activities. When parents intrude by interfering, directing, advising, warning, lecturing, suggesting, preaching, judging, criticizing, commanding, or giving solutions, they fail to communicate an acceptance of their child. Allow your child to discover his world of interests and activities by himself as much as possible. Kids who believe they are accepted for their "being" are those who are allowed to explore their own interests and activities without parental judgments.
For example, imagine that your toddler or preschooler has just discovered a puzzle. The accepting parent is the one who stands back and lets the child explore the puzzle in his own way by merely describing what he sees ("Oh, what an interesting puzzle you have there."). The accepting parental response of describing, not judging allows the child to explore new activities in his own separate and independent way. He may choose to become very involved in the puzzle, or he may choose to ignore it and move to another activity. Either way, an accepting response from his parent allows the child to become his own being by expressing interest in what he enjoys instead of selecting activities or interests that please his parents more than him. Suppose your child is looking at this puzzle and you as a parent have always wanted your child to love and be good at puzzles. Be very careful here—whose goal is it? Kids asked to conform to their parents' activities or interests are kids who will oftentimes later expend tremendous energy in rebelling.
Compare the accepting response of describing, not judging to the following "non-accepting" responses:
> "Here, let me help you put it together" (ordering, directing, commanding, imposing).
> "Here is what it should look like. Shouldn't you put that piece in next?" (advising, lecturing, preaching, offering solutions, analyzing, diagnosing).
> "Don't you want to spend more time with this?" or "Aren't you ready to do something else?" (judging, moralizing, disagreeing, interfering, questioning, probing, diverting).
> "You are capable of putting together more pieces than this" (criticizing, threatening, admonishing, warning, arguing, blaming, shaming, ridiculing).
Try to decrease your judgment comments on your child's activities and instead stick with accepting comments. Your child will likely blossom into doing those things that really interest him rather than spending time stressing about whether or not his interests will please or displease his parents.
□ PRAISING HIS BEING, NOT HIS DOING. The majority of the praise your tot or preschooler receives should be verbal praise totally unrelated to her achievement or success. Isn't this the type of praise that we as adults most value? After all, which praise feels more special and important to you: when your spouse praises a meal you spent a couple of hours preparing, or when you walk into the room and she greets you with an unexpected, "I've been just thinking how happy I am to be with you!" While both types of praise feel good, the latter is more deeply meaningful because it is directed more at your real "being" and less at your actions. If you hear praise for the meal you just cooked, you may think to yourself, "Gosh, I wonder if she expects this type of meal every day? I wonder if she is so amazed at this meal because she has disliked the ones before this? What if I can't live up to her new expectations and am only able to cook her a mediocre meal tomorrow?"
If you feel "loved" because of an accomplishment, you live in terror that you will lose this skill, beauty, fame, or honor. If you feel "loved" because you exist, you feel wonderful. Instead of praising your child's accomplishments, try simply noticing them. Kids respond better if the majority of the time you don't judge what they are doing. For example, imagine that preschooler Jane is drawing a picture and you want to give her a compliment. What you say makes a difference in what she likely thinks to herself. If you say, "I notice you like to draw that pretty flower. Wow, you sure look like you enjoy drawing," Jane may think to herself, "I am valued because Daddy noticed me and what I am doing."
Incorrect praise can actually stop the interest in something because of the child's fear that she might disappoint you. For example, if you say, "You are such a great artist!" Jane is likely to think to herself, "Uh oh, maybe he'll think that the next picture I draw isn't so good. I'm kind of scared to draw another one because he might not like it as much!" Praising everything Jane draws does not work either; the praise will become meaningless to her. The other possibility is that Jane will form such a false impression of her drawing ability that she will likely have trouble hearing any realistic critique or constructive comments from others.
Praise has the potential to fill a toddler or preschooler's soul with pleasure and pride. Praise done correctly confirms for your child his inherent value as a human on this earth.
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