written for Vancity Buzz
Recently, my girlfriend came over for a visit with her handsome six-month-old baby boy. It was a sunny day, the kind of day you want to be outside. The two of us decided to sit on a blanket in the yard so we could take advantage of the gorgeous weather.
We sat down on the soft, beige, square blanket until my preschooler could only sit for so long. The grass was calling her name and, within seconds, she asked me if we could have a race. My girlfriend sat on the blanket with her son and said, “On your mark, get set, go!” My daughter and I raced across the grass and around the side of the house. When the two of us got to the side, my daughter noticed a patch of dandelions. She ran towards them and started picking them one by one until there were no more dandelions to be seen. She held onto the dandelions tightly in a bunch in her little hand and ran toward my friend sitting on the blanket.
When she got to the blanket, without saying a word, she stretched out her arm with the dandelions and held them in front of my friend’s face. My friend replied, “Oh, I hate dandelions,” and without communicating a word back, my daughter tossed the dandelions behind her shoulder and sat down on the blanket. When my friend realized the flowers were for her, she immediately felt bad, looked at me, giggled and said, “Oh my god, I need to learn how to talk to kids.”
My friend didn’t realize the flowers were for her and was simply stating her dislike for dandelions. However, the look on my preschooler’s face made my friend realize she could have communicated her dislike with a different approach. In other words, she realized the way that we communicate with our children can have a negative or a positive effect. Similarly, the way we talk to children also has a huge impact on their self-esteem and ability to listen.
Here are 10 ways we can communicate with children to improve their ability to listen while fostering positive self-esteem:
1. Use positive language
Using the words “don’t” and “no” all the time is a negative form of communication. However, if we say things like “use your walking feet” instead of “don’t run,” and “I’m afraid if you touch that it might break” instead of “no, don’t touch that,” we are giving explanations in a positive way without having to use the words “no” and “don’t” so frequently. This type of communication isn’t always easy and requires much practice, thought and effort, but it is well worth it.
It’s imperative to try to eliminate words that sound ridiculing as well as name-calling and shaming. Saying things like “you’re such a brat,” “stop being a big baby” and “bad boy” or “bad girl” leaves the child feeling ashamed and worthless, and is very damaging to their self-esteem. When we use positive and kind words, we give our children more confidence which in turn encourages them to try hard and behave better. When we talk to our children in this positive way they learn to imitate us and show others respect.
Here’s an example of a positive way my friend could have approached my daughter when she gave her the dandelions: “Thank you for picking me the dandelions. These aren’t my favorite type of flower, but it was so thoughtful of you to pick them for me.”
2. Ask open-ended questions
When I was studying my early childhood education, I struggled with asking open-ended questions with the children I was teaching. Each time I asked a question I received a yes or no answer because my questions were closed-ended. Needless to say, to get the children to expand their minds, I needed to practice using open-ended questions. These types of questions invite children to share their ideas and feelings. When children are given these opportunities to share their ideas and feelings, it shows them that we are interested in the things they have to say.
An opportunity for an open-ended question arrived when my daughter gave my friend the dandelions. An example of an open-ended question could sound something like this: “Thank you. What are your favorite types of flowers?”
3. Use simple language
Children will lose our attention very easily, especially if we are giving them a long lecture with vocabulary they don’t understand. If we want to get through to them, we need to use shorter, simplified statements. If your child is looking at you and their look says “I don’t understand a word you’re saying,” chances are you’ve lost their interest.
4. Get down to the child’s level
When I was searching for preschool for my daughter, I chose the preschool with the teacher that got down to my daughter’s level to greet her. If we stand over top of the children we are conversing with, they have to tilt their head back to look up at us. This type of body language says “I’m the adult, you’re the child, I talk, you listen.” However, when we kneel to the child’s level, we engage with eye contact and connect with our children.
When my daughter handed my friend the dandelions she was already sitting. If, for example, your child hands you a flower, you can get down to their level, look them in the eye and say “thank you.” This helps children learn the important skill of eye contact while conversing.
5. Use “I” messages
If we want our children to consider how their behaviour will affect others, we need to use “I” messages with them. “I” messages let your child know how their behaviour makes you feel. By using this strategy, it may help them give more consideration to their actions. For example, saying “I feel really happy when you pick me flowers” instead of saying “thank you for picking me flowers” shows the child that their act of kindness made you feel good.
6. Label your child’s emotions
When we label our children’s emotions for them, this helps them put their feelings into words and increases their vocabulary.
When my friend saw my daughter’s facial reaction after throwing the dandelions over her shoulder, it was the perfect opportunity to help my daughter label what she was feeling.
For example, “I can see you’re feeling disappointed because I said I hate dandelions. I didn’t know they were for me. Thank you for picking them for me.”
Perhaps the next time my daughter feels disappointed, she will have the vocabulary to explain that feeling.
7. Try not to end your sentence with the word “okay”
This can be a tricky one to remember. However, if you want to set yourself up for frequently hearing the answer “no” then simply finish your sentence with the word “okay”, for example “go clean up your room now, okay?” A question like this can lead to a power struggle or lengthy discussions. If, for example, we use a firm yet gentle tone and say “it’s time to clean your room,” this isn’t a question, nor is it up for discussion.
8. Try not to interrupt your child
My preschooler stutters a bit and repeats herself when she is trying her best to tell me something. There are so many words in that brain of hers, and when she’s trying to articulate the story she is trying to share, it can take her a while to spit it all out. I try my hardest to actively listen to her while she shares, and when she’s finished I repeat what she said. “Oh, so you’re telling me that you and I were running in a race and you saw some dandelions and picked them?”
Other times, I admittedly have interrupted my older children to throw in some sort of lecture. If my daughter, for example, is telling me about something her and friends did at school, I have interrupted her, giving her a speech about life and the consequences they could face.
I realize that if I continue to shift away from the story being told when interrupting, my children will lose interest in sharing their feelings and stories. Thus, I try my hardest not to interrupt and to give my life lesson speech after the story has been told.
9. Be aware of your tone of voice
From inside the womb our children are already picking up on sounds, especially the sounds and tones of their mother’s voice. Babies especially have a heightened awareness with the tone we use. This is why often times you hear mothers communicating to babies in a high- pitched tone, stretching out their vowels. Experts call this musical way of talking “parentese.”
Parentese helps parents and caregivers connect to their babies and helps babies develop language skills. With preschoolers we can still use this tone. For example, if my daughter hands me flowers, I can say in a stretched out, happy tone “thank you sooooo much” instead of simply saying “thanks.”
Children also respond better to requests when they hear pleasant tones rather than shouting, angry, over-reactive tones.
10. Listen as much as you talk
We all want our children to be good listeners, however how can we possibly expect them to listen to us if we’re not giving them opportunities to talk so we can listen to them? Listening is just as important as talking, even if the sentences we hear do not make any sense. Communication is a two-way thing, and when both parents and children feel they have a say this fosters healthy communication.
Ultimately, fostering positive self-esteem and our children’s ability to listen focuses on respect for the child and involves both speaking and listening. In other words, the way we communicate with our children leads to nurturing relationships and feelings of worth.
That being said, if a child picks you a flower, get down to their level, make eye contact, use a nurturing tone and in positive, simplified language use an “I” message letting them know how the simple act of kindness made you feel.