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What the world needs now, more than ever, is a new generation of kind, respectful, tolerant people to fix the damage caused by others, and the way to do that is to teach children the art of communication.
As parents, we are our children’s first teachers. It is us who sets the ball rolling, long before school ever comes into play.
And it is our job, as loving, responsible parents, to teach our children how to communicate with others.
If they see us being disrespectful to others, it is highly likely (unless they have another strong influence in their lives apart from parents) that they will address others in a similarly disrespectful manner.
The way in which we talk to our children will set the tone for the kind of people we send forth into the world.
There are some simple but effective ways in which we can do this:
Get on their level
It’s not something we think of as adults, but can you imagine how intimidating it must feel to a small person having an adult towering over them? It must be terrifying, and will immediately put the child on their guard and there’s a good chance they will be too scared to take in what you’re saying, even if you’re not telling them off.
Instead of acting like Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians, get down to their level, so that your eyes are on a level. This is far less daunting to the child, and it will make for a much easier conversation.
Keep it short and sweet
Children have a short attention span, as do some adults…what was I saying? Oh yes, you won’t be able to focus their attention for long, so keep it brief. Say whatever it is you want to say in the first sentence, because once their attention starts to wander you’ve lost them. Look for clues that they’re no longer taking what you’re saying in such as their gaze drifting, or their eyes taking on a glazed look. And kids are smart – they will quickly cotton on to the fact that if they can keep you talking you will lose your own train of thought and get side tracked.
Make it personal
Using the name of the person you are talking to is a trick often used in counselling sessions. It immediately makes the other person feel acknowledged, and creates a personal connection between you. And with children it also draws their attention to the fact that you are addressing them and no one else. When you use a child’s name you are talking ‘to’ them, rather than ‘at’ them.
No need for negatives
Children respond much better to positives than negatives (as do we all, it’s human nature). For instance, instead of saying ‘Charlie, don’t throw the ball indoors’, you could say ‘Charlie, we can throw the ball outside, but inside we just roll it’.
Please please me…
Children love to please people, especially the ones they hold in the highest esteem, which is usually their parents.
When you are asking your child to do something for you, if you turn it into them doing something for you, rather than just doing something, they are more likely to do it.
So something along the lines of ‘Laura, I want you to put your toys away now’, is better than simply ‘Laura, put your toys away’, or even better ‘Laura, I would like you to put your toys away’, inferring that this action will please you, which is what most children want more than anything.
I before you
A lot of these strategies work with adults as well as children, none more so than this one.
When somebody starts a sentence with ‘you’ it immediately puts the other person on their guard. So for instance, ‘you need to put your toys away/you’d better tidy up/you always make such a mess is quite confrontational and accusatory. A much gentler but more effective way of saying it might be ‘I would be really happy if you could put your toys away/tidy up/ you could make a little less mess’. They will start learning about empathy in life eventually, but we should really help the process as much as we can.
Use open ended questions
A common complaint from parents is that, when they ask their child if they had a good day at school, the child responds with a yes, or a no. To them, that can mean the conversation is finished. So rephrasing the question into ‘what was the best thing that happened at school today?’ means they have to enter into a dialogue, which then opens up the whole conversation.
Manners make the man
Children will imitate us. So if we are angry they will be angry. If we throw things in temper, they will throw things in temper. And if we display good manners, they will do the same. Just because we are the grown-ups and they are the children does not mean that they don’t deserve the same level of respect as we do. So when we ask our child for something, always say ‘please’. The same goes for ‘thank you’, when we are handed something, and reminding your child from an early age to do the same will pay dividends in turning out a well-mannered toddler, child, teenager and adult.
Really, all we need to remember is the old saying ‘treat others the way you would like to be treated’. Don’t talk down to your child and don’t talk at your child; treat them as people, albeit little people, and they will grow up to have respect and good manners, both of which the world is in short supply of. And most importantly, you will both have learnt how to communicate with each other.