4 tools to help you communicate with kids

Parenting tips

Want to communicate better with the kids in your life but think your skills aren’t quite up for the task? Whether you are parent, aunt, or cousin; school staff member, church worker, or librarian; babysitter, counselor, or volunteer, your conversations with kids matter. Having served in nearly all those roles myself, I’ve discovered tools that seem to improve my relationships with children. Here are a few of my best recommendations for adults.

1) Stop before you are finished.

As parents, we tend to keep talking with the expectation that the child will say, “You know Parent, you are so right! I mean, I’m so lucky to have you. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with me. You have shown me the error of my ways. Please forgive me and allow me to make proper restitution.” The truth: your offspring will likely NEVER admit this to you.

We grown-ups need to learn to stop before we’ve said everything we have to say. We need to leave space for children to think through what we’ve said. Let them draw some of their own conclusions. Decide which key points we want to deliver (three or fewer), say those things as succinctly as possible, and stop talking, even if you feel like you aren’t finished. Remember, there’s never been a kid who said, “You know, I would have understood the message better if you had just lectured me a while longer.”

2) Keep your End Result in Mind

Too many times, we start out in a direction that will lead to one end result when what we want is an entirely different one. For example, let’s say what you want is for your child to do her homework, but you start by reminding her how many times she’s waited to the last minute and not gotten it finished. Pretty soon you are yelling and you two get into an argument that ends in a double melt down. The end result? You got to vent about an ongoing frustration for you (and sometimes, that may be exactly what you need). If you really want homework done, you’ll need to approach it from a different direction.

I suggest starting from a place of compassion. Offer empowering options; recommend creative study methods; check back in with your child, supporting and encouraging rather than nagging and berating. Take this route, and the end result is much more likely to be homework completion.

There are all kinds of examples of the end result problem. You want to encourage your child, so you point out areas in which he could improve. You want a family dinner, so you demand that each child be home, rather than considering their schedules from the outset. You want your child to make more healthful food choices, so you explain the dangers of childhood obesity and require her to keep a food journal.

We mean well, bless our hearts, but we’re going backwards. Know what you want to accomplish, and don’t get derailed by emotions and reactions.

3) It’s Okay to Offer an External Reward.

Seriously. Think about it. Losing excess weight has long term health benefits; that is reason enough to eat right and exercise for the rest of our lives. But since we can’t really measure the long term, we give ourselves short term rewards: new clothes, new exercise shoes, mani/pedi days.

I used to pay my son to take oral prednisone. He had to take it for six days, as I recall, and I paid him a dollar a dose. Thus, for swallowing something that tasted like raspberry flavored motor oil, my son got the chance to buy six Hot Wheels. I saw it as a fair trade. For me, the benefit was not having a screaming battle and not having to take him back to the doctor, or even worse, have him admitted to the hospital. (It saved me a lot of money to pay him a dollar a dose.) Now here’s the thing, eventually, I didn’t pay him anymore because he learned that the medication he took for his asthma was self-rewarding: nasty medicine = breathing. You won’t have to add external rewards forever. But it’s okay to keep it as one of the tools in your parenting toolbox.

4) Communicate Closer & Softer

When you make requests or offer correction to your children, how often to you shout from another room, out of their sight? Communication is greatly improved if we reduce the area over which the message has to travel. Makes sense, right? I mean, you’re more likely to have greater success in mailing a letter to an office downtown than to the Land Down Under, right?

Also, who among us enjoys hearing someone yell at us? So, when you want to offer direction or instruction, move closer to the person you are addressing; then, you can use your inside voice, and not your out-on-the-playground voice. I know, I know, you’re thinking that when you are in the middle of housework and you need your child to pick up her toys, it’s frustrating to have to stop and go to where she is. It feels like a waste of time. I get it. But really, you are investing time, not consuming it.

You stop, just for a minute, go to the room where your child is, and say in your speaking voice, “Hey, could you come pick up your toys please?” (And yes, do say “please.” Model good manners and you’ll see them come back to you.) Can you see how this approach would be so much more productive in the long run than, “Come pick up your toys!” screeched from the next room?

Variety is Key

Remember, nothing works every single time. You need to have lots of tools in your toolbox. Sometimes you’ll need to get closer and softer. Another time, the same problem will require an external reward. Switch it up a bit. Stay ahead by creating your own tools, your own strategies. And remember: when you mess up, it’s right and good to apologize. By doing so, you’ll teach children that being wrong is a part of life; truly, there are few things as valuable as teaching a child to accept responsibility for mistakes and then to move forward.

What are your best practices? Comment below with one of your most effective parenting tools.

By Aileen MItchell Lawrimore

Aileen Mitchell Lawrimore is a mother x 3, wife x 35 (years not men), minister, speaker, writer, retreat leader, and lover of beagles and books. She has a lot to say.