All posts tagged how to talk to kids

The Importance of Touch

New Research Focuses on the Power of Physical Contact, via NY Times: “In recent years some researchers have begun to focus on a different, often more subtle kind of wordless communication: physical contact. Momentary touches, they say — whether an exuberant high five, a warm hand on the shoulder, or a creepy touch to the arm — can communicate an even wider range of emotion than gestures or expressions, and sometimes do so more quickly and accurately than words.

The evidence that such messages can lead to clear, almost immediate changes in how people think and behave is accumulating fast. Students who received a supportive touch on the back or arm from a teacher were nearly twice as likely to volunteer in class as those who did not, studies have found. A sympathetic touch from a doctor leaves people with the impression that the visit lasted twice as long, compared with estimates from people who were untouched. Research by Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute in Miami has found that a massage from a loved one can not only ease pain but also soothe depression and strengthen a relationship.”

 

A common parenting tendency to attempt to modify children’s behavior primarily with our voices, followed up by physical intervention when this fails. Touch is rarely proactive, and is often negative.
Earlier today, my 14 month-old Cezar had climbed onto the table and was putting my necklace into a cup of cold tea. Preoccupied myself, I called out to him to please stop, worried he would spill on the plethora of electronics in the vicinity. He paused and looked at me, undoubtedly made curious by my stern and animated reaction. I called out to him again. Not breaking eye contact, he slowly lowered the necklace back into the tea.  Sheepish about my own lazy and incredibly futile method, I went and retrieved the cup. He of course protested and became even more upset when I took him off the table.

I know I am not alone in practicing this sort of ineffective pattern of communication; in fact, I received a question last week from a woman who was at her wits end with her toddler, whom she said “doesn’t listen to anything I say! In fact, she seems to deliberately do the opposite just to get a reaction!”

I find it interesting that we treat verbal cues as though they are imbued with magical properties that should change the behavior of children as though the utterances were literally spells or incantations. Why do we assume that spoken language is or should be the most effective way of prompting kids?  One thing I’ve noticed is that many of us seem wary of using physical guidance or instruction until all attempts at verbal persuasion have been exhausted and frustration has set in. This sets up the subsequent physical interaction to be negative since it comes in the form of intervention, rather than proactivity.

Back to my Cezar. In that typical situation, it would have been more effective for me to have gone over to him the instant I took notice, and provided assistance on what he was trying to do. If he was curious about the liquid in the cup,  I might have brough over a spoon and guiding his hand with it to show him how to stir slowly without spilling. If it was too hot, I could have showed him how to put his hand near the surface to test for heat. I could have also done a separate demonstration on how to put the necklace on himself carefully, and away from the tea. The rule of thumb here is that they are curious, and there is almost always a way to address that curiosity safely; it just requires some hands-on assistance, rather than shouting crude commands.  Physical interaction should be supportive and proactive, and the verbal cues should be supplementary and explanatory. This method is also most likely to be safe long-term since the lessons learned from exploration are more effective than ones learned from directives or intimidation.

Here are some tips I’m using to help me become better at non-verbal communication:

  • Move closer. Don’t let your voice be the first thing on the scene.
  • Instead of “shhh-ing” a crying child or asking “are you okay?” Simply use touch and your physical presence to send a message of security and comfort. Often there is no need to say anything anyways.
  • In any situation where you might say “Stop that!” or “Put that down!” consider how you can use a positive non-verbal approach to solve the problem. It might be initiating an activity together, or giving a hand with something, or simply exploring the breakable object with them until their curiosity is satisfied.

Language is wonderful, and I strive to provide full commentary and explanations along side hands-on learning. However, the need for touch and positive physical interaction is primary to human wellbeing, and is an oft-neglected component of childhood socialization. Rather than outsource comfort and stimulation to external objects, we need to rediscover the real source of those physical needs.

Do you have any tips on how to use more non-verbal communication? Share them in a comment!

Using a Real Voice

I have noticed that the voices grown-ups use when talking to kids are often raised and annunciated; spoken to emphasize the stature of the person they are directing.

These aren’t the voices we use when conversing with peers.

As a kid, I hated being spoken to in a sugary, over-emphasized voice that was reserved for children. It was alienating. And I certainly couldn’t comprehend speaking in such a foreign, silly voice myself.

Recently, I started paying attention to myself when talking to my four year-old. With a thud my chest only makes when being hit with reality, I conceded that the voice I kept putting on was not the one I use when speaking intimately with my partner or close friends. While it was indeed much sweeter, displaying the special sort of fondness I have for my daughter, (also called Motherese, which can be effective with babies,) but it was also mildly contrite, and patronizing. It may have even been loud. Most shockingly, I would sometimes even talk too close to her face to try and keep her attention. Not exactly behavior I want her mimic.

Why is it so hard to wear our real voices with kids? One reason is that we are conscious of the fact that we are teaching them. Yet, for me, the most effective teachers I’ve encountered are the ones able to connect their ideas with me intimately in a way that leaves me feeling inspired. They are usually ones that talk in voices that draw us in, not push us away.

So, how can we get better at talking intimately to our kids, (in real voices)?

Some ideas:

    • Use more challenging words.
      Saving a complex word for some later date has no benefit. We can teach complicated words fluidly by including already known synonyms with them.

 

    • Take a genuine interest.
      Kids might not understand every component of what is going on around them, but neither do we. Immerse yourself in the marvel of their interest, an aim to give more compelling narratives each time.

 

    • Engage in the moment.
      This is what kids are naturally good at; they immerse themselves seamlessly in inner worlds though make-believe and narratives. Most of us grow out of our action-figures, and into jobs, hobbies, and events, but there is still that same joy in surrendering to an experience and feeling the thrill and sublimity of simple games.

 

  • Imagine how you want him/her to interact with you.
    Most of us hope our kids will learn to articulate themselves to us calmly, honestly, and respectfully. Yet it’s unrealistic that they will learn to do this if we don’t start with them.

Have you found it difficult to talk in a real voice sometimes? I will be practicing mine more.