When researchers look at the type of communication between parents and children they find that an inordinate amount of communication focuses on two types:
… direction and correction.
Studies have videotaped families, charting their communication. They found the bulk of communication revolves around the parent telling their children what to do and what not to do. As you are thinking about your home, you may be thinking… ”of course! I have to!” And to some degree you do. Children need direction and correction from their parents. We are shaping their behavior and their character. I don’t want to scare the crap out of you but, we are also shaping…
…how they see themselves,
…how they see God,
… how they see the world,
… and how they see relationships with others.
Our communication with them sends powerful, yet covert messages in those four areas.
As I work with parents, they identify with these research findings and desire a different experience. However, they struggle to implement changes to their communication patterns. I get that… Me too. Parents tell me they have tried, but are frustrated when they can’t produce the robust and engaging dialogue they were hoping for… I get that… Me too. When children experience dialogue with their parents as being heavy in direction and correction they will hear parental questions of interest as interrogation. They will expect whatever they tell their parent about their day will lead to…
… correction or direction… which will then feel like condemnation.
I imagine you wouldn’t want to talk to you either if that was what you expected.
Researchers tell us in healthy parent/child relationships the communication ratio is typically 4 positive, affirming comments to 1 negative or correcting comment. In struggling relationships, to create something positive the ratio would increase to 8 to 1. Yikes! That means for every direction or correction statement, I need to say 8 non-direction, non-correction statements. To be successful, I am going to need to know WHAT to say.
Here are some suggestions to help guide the process:
- Affection – Words of affection are powerful. I love you. You make me smile. I like being with you. Words of affection send the message the person is dearly loved and worthy of belonging… one of the most important aspects of a healthy self-concept. Speak affectionately often.
- Affirmation – Perhaps the second most powerful positive reinforcement of a healthy self-concept is affirmation. Kids continually and covertly look for evidence their parents are proud of them; they also look to see if their parents notice and appreciate who they are and what unique strengths they possess. These are not empty words praising everything they do as “great”. Instead, they are words affirming that you are proud of them, that their talent, ability or activity is a wonderful contribution, and that they are doing a great job of growing into the adult they want to become. These words tell them they are uniquely and wonderfully made.
- Appreciation – Have you ever put yourself out doing something for someone, and they didn’t appreciate or even notice it? Yep… Me too. It didn’t feel too good. I am not suggesting parents pour on the sappy praises or verbal payments for everything a kid does. However, kids feel a healthy sense of self when they are contributing to a family and their contribution is appreciated. Kids may hate me for this… but one of the best ways to do this is through chores… which can also be the number one topic of correction and direction. Messages like… “I know you really didn’t have a choice to do the dishes and you would have rather been doing something else, but I appreciate your willingness, consistency, efficiency, effectiveness, (whatever you can give them credit for). Your help makes a positive difference and I appreciate it,” tell kids there is a reason they are on this planet and the things they do make a positive difference in the lives of others. It’s worth it to participate in being part of a family.
- Implementation – Careful with this one or it can become a longer version of direction. Often parents will set an expectation with the assumption the child has the knowledge and skill set to carry it out. Adults can underestimate the learning curve for kids, as well as, the aspects of the activity that are out of the child’s control. Exploring with your kids the obstacles they face, and helping them find steps to move in a healthy direction can help them build mastery (another aspect of a healthy self-concept).
- Inspiration – Does your speech incite fear and shame or does it inspire hope and self-efficacy. I’ll admit this one is hard for me. There are a lot of things to fear in this world and as insecure as I am about my own ability to protect my kids, I still trust my decades of wisdom over what they have gained in their few years on this planet. Rightly so. However, if warnings are disproportionate to other conversation content, kids will become anxious and insecure about their own ability to maneuver through their life. The discomfort of hearing such unpleasant information – both the scary world content and how they are not wise enough to make good choices – will cause them to stop talking to you for fear of hearing more.
- Self-Information – Often parents become frustrated with rote answers of “fine” or “good” to the inquiries about their child’s day. There are several ways to overcome this; one is to simply model what you want. Come home and openly share your day. The highs, the lows, the funny parts, the most frustrating parts, the most vulnerable parts, the parts where you messed up, even the parts that remain unresolved but are “in process”. In particular, share your emotions about the occurrences of your day. It is important for kids to see that their parents are happy, sad, angry, insecure, proud, etc… and that they can bounce back from the very unpleasant emotions, as well as, enjoy the pleasant ones. Also, kids benefit from seeing that issues aren’t always resolved in one day, but those issues do not have to take away from enjoying the rest of the day. Some of you may have no trouble with verbally sharing. So I add, don’t hog the spot light! Save room for all of your kiddos to do some talking and show interest in whatever their highs and lows may be – if it is important to them, then it is important to you… because they are important to you.
- Solicitation – Closed-ended questions result in one word answers and often feel like an interrogation. If you want a longer answers ask open-ended questions. Helpful tip: although “Why…” is an open-ended lead it tends to be heard as condemning. Also, by the time you sit down at the dinner table, the kids have had several highs and lows so a question like “how was your day?” which is also an open-ended lead, is too broad. You are likely to get something in the middle like “ok”. “Tell me about lunch today” may work better. Be sure your responses to their disclosures are empathetic and you don’t go into “direction or correction” mode, or the next time they will say “fine”.
- Identification – Do your words let your child know you can identify with what they are going through and feeling? You may not agree with them, their perspective may be immature and their response may not be appropriate, but can you communicate that you “get it”? Here’s an example: “I can hear in your words that you are angry and frustrated with your brother… I would be too if he did that to me… I’m glad you sent a message to him that it is not ok for him to treat you that way… But it is not ok to hit him…”
- Reconciliation – Does how you handle mistakes and rebellion send the message you love your children when they are good but not when they mess up or when they don’t do what you want? Or are you intentional about circling back after an explosive moment to reiterate that nothing they can do would take your love away? Do you apologize when you mess up and ask for their forgiveness, as well as, grant forgiveness when your kiddo messes up? Or are past mistakes held over their heads such that they don’t have the ability to be seen as capable and trustworthy again? Your child will make the connection “bad behavior” equals “less lovable” and “separated relationship” unless you overtly and frequently tell them differently.
- Playation – Ok, ok… I know playation is not a word… the squiggly red line is telling me too. So, I worked my brain and came up with two that can be wrapped together to make the point: Animation and Exhilaration. Basically, fun. Are you fun to talk to? Is every conversation a lecture or does your talk have some laughter and lightheartedness? This can be tough if you grew up in a home where the only jokes and laughter came at the expense of someone else. It is worth the effort to remove any obstacles keeping your family from having honest, loving fun together. Research continues to show that families who play together feel more connected and engage in more meaningful conversations. Enjoy talking to them and they will enjoy talking to you too.
Perhaps, fruitful conversations didn’t exist in the home where you grew up. It is not too late to create rich dialogue in your family now. We have the wonderful opportunity to know and be known by others… especially within our family. Speak life. Speak love. Speak well.