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Effective Communication and Children

Monkey business?When adults know why effective communication is so important for developing children’s self-esteem, they are more likely to do what is necessary.
Without effective communication in response to children’s feelings and wishes, emotional and even physical suffering is likely.
The NSPCC tells us that ‘...being a parent isn’t always easy... All parents have behaved in ways they regret – shouting or smacking.’ Assaulting and neglecting children leads to a breakdown of trust.
The NSPCC warn us of the likely consequences: children will feel resentful and angry thereby spoiling family relationships, and they may lie, hide feelings, bully others, and become even more defiant.
Also, babies may not miss their mother if she leaves the room and on her return may display ‘approach avoidance’.
So, as these consequences show, adults must learn and use child-friendly strategies that will allow open communication and the building of self-esteem.

Three C's of Alfie Kohn

Parents can effectively resolve problems with younger children by using Alfie Kohn’s child-centred ‘three Cs’ approach. When issues arise, it can be difficult for children to understand what is happening in their emotional life. Kohn says, ‘Younger children cannot always identify and verbalize their motives.’ This can lead to an impasse between parent and child, and widespread family disruption.

Here is an example of it in practice. A four year old boy is struggling to sleep at the expected time every night.

The first C is ‘content’, where, from the child’s perspective, the adults must consider whether their expectation is reasonable. In the boy's case it is not reasonable to expect him to sleep at a set time if there are unresolved upsetting emotions churning within (from the culture shock of starting a new school to no longer being the baby of his stepfamily).

This leads to the second C of ‘collaboration’, where the child is involved in a child-friendly environment such as on the floor playing (not at the kitchen table with the TV on nearby as the parents tried initially!) and at a pace set by the child (unlike the boy's parents hastily trying to prise the solution out of the boy at said kitchen table). All this will tend to reveal the child’s true feelings. The parents play detective, seeing how the child feels about his/her life, being honest and open about how the child’s behaviour concerns them and that a solution would help the child too. They would likely need to give careful explanation and guidance. As a consequence, they may need to take some practical actions; in the boy's case, the mother may approach her ex-husband and ask him to put the boy to bed at a similar time.

The third C is ‘choice’, where the parents seek a ‘win-win’ solution to the issue, the child being offered two choices, both being more attractive to the parents than the existing impasse. The mother might offer her son a choice between playing or reading with Mummy, then it’s straight to bed. The reason why this approach is effective is that the child feels involved and  has not been forced, so building open communication and self-worth.

The same applies to older children. Parents need to regularly ask their children how they feel about things that will affect them profoundly. Children want to be part of the process of decision making in their lives, even if they do not want to or cannot take responsibility for the decision.

Family communication
Family Communication

Courses existed for adults on this, like Coram’s ‘Listening to Young Children’. Open University offered the online module 'Understanding Children and Young People', which explored effective communication with children - including Alfie Kohn's three C's.

A Powerful Skill: Positive Language and Expectations

A key skill in parenting communication is emphasising what you want/expect rather than what you do not want/expect. This also applies to self-talk and adults, so if I say to you, "Do not think of a pink dinosaur", you are likely to do exactly what I didn't want: you will think of a pink dinosaur! Instead say what you want: "Think of a blue sheep".
For my kids an example I practised with drinks was: instead of "don't spill it", I learned to say "keep it in the mug". Elizabeth Pantley in Hidden Messages (pp.114-115) explains:

'Make a very simple, but powerful, change in the way you communicate to children. Instead of telling them what not to do, tell them what to do. Consider the difference between these statements:

Don’t push your sister.       Be gentle with your sister.
Don’t yell.                             Use a quiet voice...

Use proactive expression, as opposed to prohibitive expression, because it transfers control – and opportunity – to the listener.

You’ll see: when you replace negative reprimands with positive mandates, you give children the information they need to behave appropriately and the opportunity to do so. The decision to use that information is still theirs, but they’re not left to guess at what your expectations are. You’ll also generate a more pleasant mood in your home. And I guarantee that you’ll enjoy hearing your own voice so much more!'

Handling the Tyranny of "No!"

As a child carer, if you find yourself saying "No!" a lot, it is not only hard on the child, but also tends to drag you down. It feels like tyranny for both of you. Try these steps.
First organise your life, your mindset and your home so that the need to say "No" is lessened. You can make your home child-friendly, so that there is little to accidentally break or stain. Prioritise your child's needs over having to maintain any kind of social image. 
Second, when a denial of a child's wish is needed, instead of just a blunt "No!", rather try to offer an alternative. This is like using the 'C' of Choice or proactive language (from above). So, when your child wants to bake a cake, instead of getting to "For the tenth time, No!" - rather offer to co-create a simple quick recipe (if the child wants) or give a day when you can bake a cake (then ensure you fulfil your promise). 

Age Appropriate? Roots and Wings

Parents need to ask whether their expectations and interactions are age appropriate. This has overlap with 'Content' above. Research what is age appropriate...
A basic guideline is that when very young, parents are mainly guiding their child's life, yet sensitive to child's cues (which may modify parental decisions). This is attachment parenting; it brings stability, as child's needs are being met. As children mature, ensure they become more involved in family decisions. They need to develop strength and wisdom in navigating their own life path.
Parents will eventually be background, allowing complete freedom. They remain there if needed, as advisor now rather than parent - for parents are but guardians for a while, Great Spirit is understood as the true parent.
In this way, as the saying goes, parents gift children the stability of roots and the freedom of wings.

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

Yes you want to enlighten your children into the ways of your culture, but also ease back. Avoid conflict over little things. Then when you do instruct, they are more likely to take note.
Ask yourself will it matter in 10 years time? Value the goofiness of them growing up. See the comedy in it (but at no-one's expense). Try to treasure it all.
Everyone is likely to enjoy each other so much more.

Spotlight the Behaviour/Issue, not the Child

When tackling an issue, make it clear that it is the undesirable behaviour that is unwanted or bad - never the child.
Offer specific positive alternatives for the future, like "Next time please can you..."

Older Children
Older children want hang-around time with undistracted parents (survey cited in Open University Y156 module book Understanding Children pp.128-130). Working parents need to prioritise time when they are not distracted by other issues, when problems can be aired along with other ups and downs of everyday life.
Also, the biggest wish of the children was for parents to be less stressed when they are with them. Parents need to be able to switch off from work instead of letting all the stress ‘spill’ over into the emotional lives of their children.
Parents need to find out what is going on in their children’s lives, talk to their kids even if the kids act like they don’t want you to.
Family must be put first - be there emotionally for your children.


Gerry Spence (How to Argue and Win Every Time, Chapter 14 ‘Arguing with Kids’, pp.265-266):

'Short of risking the child’s life or well-being, children should be left free to make their own mistakes and to grow from them without argument from their parents. The parent who is always afraid for the child and argues against everything the child wishes to do has no credibility with him, for the child is not afraid. The child has been prepared by Mother Nature to take risks and to absorb failures. The toddler is not afraid to take its steps and to take the chance of falling. The old man is mortally fearful of falling. Mother Nature has prepared one to fall, the other not to fall. It is out of risk that the child learns and grows...
Although their lives are in jeopardy, they are not afraid. That is the curse, but also the blessing. If the child’s fear were in proportion to the danger, the child could never experience the marvelous transformation from child to adult.'


Take a moment to step back, take some deep breaths and centre yourself. Try to feel what your gut instinct or heart or intuition is saying. What is the best for everyone?


Corporal Punishment
Also see:-

Presence Not Presents 2

Instead of Spanking
[external link]

Help for Tantrums
[external link]

The Joy of Toddlers
[external link]

End Corporal Punishment
[external link]

The Case Against Time-Out
[external link]

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Page last updated: 23 April 2022.