My Kids Grow and So Do I


Friday, August 2, 2013

Constructive Communication With Kids Series, part 2: Choosing a Positive Starting Point

Last week in this space we stressed the importance of constructive communication in the parent-child relationship. Constructive communication was defined as sending a message with the intent of contributing positively to the experience of the one receiving the message. In order to get a better grip on the process of communication we split it up in the following four elements:

     We then looked at a casual, daily exchange (“Please wash up before dinner”; “Yes, mom”) to illustrate the workings of the four elements. But then, what do you do when the recipient (4) all of a sudden does not respond in the way you expected? This week we will look at what options you, as a parent and care-giver, have when you notice that the recipient in the communication chain has changed and your message is no longer calling forth the desired response.

     There is no need to worry. Kids, by nature, do not stand still, they are constantly evolving. Their view of themselves and of the world around them is in continuous flux. A new response to a familiar signal is one of the ways children use to get to know themselves, and therefore it is one of the signs of a well-developing child. As your child grows it will want to assert its independence from you, the parent, and its responses to your messages will reflect that urge. It makes sense to get acquainted with the developmental stages kids go through as they grow, so you will know what to expect. In addition, talking to another parent, a teacher or psychologist might give you a new perspective on the situation. I recommend all parents and care-givers to become specialists in child development.

     This blog, though, has a different focus: you, the parent / care-giver. You are element 1 in the communication chain. You are the one that decides the two other elements: message and channel (2 and 3). The decision as to the form and shape of all three is in your hands.

Communicating is choosing

Each and every time you communicate with your child, you make three choices: the constitution of the starting point (location, mood, etc.), the contents of the message and the preferred channel that brings the message across. These three choices determine to a large extent whether your part in the communication is a constructive influence in your child’s development and in your relationship, or not. When you consciously choose a beneficial starting point, a constructive message and an appropriate way to deliver it, then you contribute to a positive relationship and to the healthy development of your child. Let’s look at an example to illustrate this:

     Your child enters the kitchen with muddy shoes and pants and stomps across the freshly mopped floor. When you are ‘on automatic’ you might react saying “Hey there! What do you think you're doing? How often do I have to tell you? Get those dirty kicks off my floor!” Here, the starting point (1) is irritation, the message (2) is rejection and the chosen means of communication (3) is an irritable tone. The effect on the child of this automatic response can be manifold: regressive behavior (e.g. crying in order to solicit a more caring response), rebellion (shouting: “It’s not my fault I have to wear those stupid boots all the time!”) or obedience (the child suppresses a knee-jerk reaction, sulking silently.) It may be clear that none of these effects contribute positively to a child’s development, let alone to the relationship.

     Quite a different experience results when the parent in the above situation is able to stand back inwardly (see my earlier post in the series Spiritual Tools) for just a bit and consciously commits to constructive communication. The parent assumes a positive attitude (1) as the basis of their response, a constructive message (2), and delivers it in a fitting way (3). The parent might for instance smile and say: “Look who’s come through the door: it’s grubby Brother Bear. What have you been up to?” while bending over to help with the laces. Now the starting point (1) is helpfulness, the message is (2) cooperation or solidarity, and the communication channel (3) a friendly tone. This type of communication allows the child space to share their world with the adult in charge and make an independent choice to show responsibility for the muddy gear. The child will start to talk about what happened while at the same time trying to take off his grimy shoes and pants himself.

     This example may be far removed from daily life with kids, where the constant stream of chores and demands will so often bring about irritability. But don’t be disheartened. Constructive communication is easier to achieve than you think. Let’s first have a look at element 1, the starting point that is you , the parent and care-giver. Later we will look at elements 2 and 3 (the message and the chosen channel).

Consciously choose your starting point   

     You might think: “What do you mean, consciously choose a starting point? My starting point is the fact that I am the parent / care-giver. I rely on my experience and intuition; I love my child and I’m doing the best I can. Isn’t that enough?” Indispensable as these qualities are, they are not sufficient, unfortunately. Parent and care-givers need to do more, and can do more. Compared to former days rearing children in modern times requires more of a person for various reasons. Today we enjoy a higher standard of living which means an increasing number of choices in all areas. Families are smaller than they used to be so there aren’t any elder brothers and sisters around to step in and help. In addition, in smaller families the individual child is more often in the lime light compared to former times. However, the most important reason I think is the growing awareness in our culture of the uniqueness of the individual. With that higher awareness comes a responsibility for the individual’s opportunities to develop and grow.

     Due to all these reasons a modern parent / care-giver is faced with a complex task. Relying solely on experience or intuition is no longer going to cut it; some situations require a more thorough approach. Loving your child is crucial for its development, since love, after all, is the heart of the parent-child relationship. However, that love is not enough when it does not express itself in a specific loving attitude chosen for a specific situation. Trying the best you can is absolutely vital, however if it is an ignorant effort, it will fall short in most instances. Apart from intuition, experience, love and effort, one more thing is needed in order to adequately fulfill your role as a parent and care-giver: insight. 

     Insight in your child and in yourself. Insight in your child mainly rests on your knowledge and understanding of general children’s development. If you are able to put your child’s behavior in the context of a particular stage of development, you are less likely to fall prey to frustration and irritation and you will be better able to respond adequately. I can't stress enough how important insight in your children's development is.

     The other type of insight is: insight in yourself. You, the parent / care-giver are after all the focus of this blog. Insight in yourself means: being able to step back inwardly and analyze your own behavior and your own role as care-giver. In a way you become your own director observing your own direction. That may sound abstract, but most parents already have insight in themselves to some extent. I am sure you will recognize some of three examples:

  •      A five-year-old proudly shows his drawing to mommy. Mother responds: “Beautiful! So many colors!”

  •      The two brothers Joe and Martin are fighting at the dinner table for the umpteenth time. Dad, tired after a tough day at work and still tense, explodes and grounds them for the rest of the day. When he has calmed down a bit, he decides to go upstairs and talk to the boys. “Hey, you guys. I’m sorry I lost it. No matter how bad you behave, I don’t want to treat you like that.”

  •      A mother of two small, zappy kids arranges for a sitter to come in every Wednesday afternoon. She knows that if she relies on just herself the entire day, she’ll get snappy. With the sitter present the pressure on her is less and she is better able to be the patient mom she has pledged to be and not be swept away by negative emotions.

     A mother who does not have insight in herself and who responds to a child by saying: “I could do a much better job” or “I am not in the mood for drawings” when her child shows her his drawing, is on the same developmental level as the child. Having insight in herself not only means that she is able to observe her own behavior and responses, but that in addition she is able to direct her responses at will. She is able to put her own agenda on hold for a bit in order to choose the response that forms a positive contribution to the child’s development as well as to their relationship.

     As for the third example of the mother and her lively offspring, should she not have gained insight in herself, she might easily have gotten a burn-out due to the parenting demands placed on her. Fortunately, she has insight in herself and the situation she is in and is able to take appropriate measures pro-actively.

     We, parents, are lucky in a way. The new and unexpected love we have felt well up inside when our child was born is a storehouse from which we can draw during our parenting years. Our call on love will cut both ways: not only our children benefit when we relate to them from a place of love, but we ourselves do, too. Love as the basis for communication allows the work of our hands to express the love we hold in our hearts. As we adapt to our growing, changing children, and take on the challenge of expressing our love in new ways, our own spirituality deepens and grows.

     In part 3 of this series (Constructive Communication With Kids) we will look at various every-day type child-rearing situations  and we will discuss how aspects of love serve as inspiring starting points in our communication with kids.

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