I came across a slogan on facebook the other day: people, use your voice and it got me thinking about communication and personal expression. There’s another slogan – I’ve seen it on bumper stickers: children should be seen and heard and believed. Put the two together and you get an idea that sounds good: support your child’s voice, but actually doing that is surprisingly challenging.

Since behavior is communication, I’m going to stretch the idea of the “voice” to include actions.

I have a big “voice” in a lot of ways, even though I can be very soft-spoken in person. When I was first a step-parent, I used my voice in very authoritarian ways. In my understanding of the world, parents had voices and children didn’t – although honestly I would have been appalled and defensive if anyone had said that to me. I thought I was being a respectful parent, honoring the voice of the person I imagined my stepson would one day be.

One of the hardest aspects of parents learning to listen to their children’s voices is learning to hear “no”. It’s devastating. We hang a whole lot of our self-worth on the hope of being accepted and validated by our children – especially if we didn’t get enough acceptance and validation as children, ourselves. So being told “no” by a child can rock a parent to the core. No, I won’t accept that lovingly created gift of nurturing food. No, I won’t wear that beautiful hand-made dress. No, I won’t stop what I’m doing in favor of what you’re doing. No, I’m not you; I don’t like what you like. Ouch. It’s little wonder most parents kick and scream (metaphorically at least) and use their big voices to quiet those persistent nos.

The most common mistake parents who are trying to live peacefully with children make is thinking they can tell and explain, use enough words or the right words, to get children to do what they, the parents want the to do. It’s a mistake in communication, one that misses out on the most important part of communication: listening.


I'm all tickled

Mo went to a sleepover followed by laser tag and although we brought her two changes of outfits to replace the floor-length stretch velvet dress she had worn to the party, she decided it was the perfect costume for laser tag, too. We left clothes and dropped the subject, but the host-mom tried to dissuade her one last time, managing to draw Mo out a bit and tell her that she was concerned about Morgan’s comfort while playing tag. Morgan reportedly replied: “If you’re concerned about my comfort you’ll stop talking about this.” That’s my girl! She looks shy right up to the point you try to cross her boundaries.

She wore the dress the whole time playing tag.

My friend Rachel, the mom in question commented:

I was amazed she could do it! I imagine I would have totally tripped and fallen. That just goes to show that we as parents and adults don't always know what is "best". To have forced or coerced her into changing would have been acting out

of fear about myself, disrespecting her personal choice, therefore not expressing empathy. I feel like I did my part by helping her make an informed decision, as I did with the other kiddos about shoe and sock choices-some changed their minds, others didn't. It obviously meant a lot to her to wear the dress and she totally sported it! Brava!


anger and communication

Clearly I edited the context for this down to the barest minimum.

>why doesn't the anger drum work every
> time?

I'm starting with the end because its an important question - Nothing is going to "work every time" because people don't always get angry for the exact same reason, with the exact same build-up. I'm guessing the idea of an anger drum is to work out some tension, but anger isn't just some vague, free-floating emotion, especially for young children. It has a cause. Banging the drum doesn't fix the cause of the anger. That's why its better to look at the specific needs each time and try to understand why the person is angry - and then look for ways to prevent that from happening again.

Ready to dive in?

> I'll ask him to return the object he took from me and ask if he
> wants to use it.

Woops and woops. Start sooner. Make the fact that he has some thing a non-issue.

Kid-proof your house better if there are tons of things lying around that children shouldn't handle. Put things "out of sight out of mind" at the very least, and maybe pack up somethings for a few years in storage. Kids learn by interacting with the world, so set them up with a world they can touch and explore in safety while they're home. There will be plenty of other places for "don't touch" I promise!

Did he take the thing, whatever it was, out of your hand? Can you be a grown-up and get another? Or wait your turn? Usually, if you can give a child a "turn" to use or explore something you have, they get their fill and move on - much quicker and easier all 'round than starting a fight with a little kid. Taking turns is a better expression than sharing when you have multiple kids, too - the whole concept of turn taking makes more sense to a child than the ephemeral "share".

Don't start with "no" or "give it back" whenever possible. Start with a general comment or question, make conversation. See the behavior as a means of communicating interest - either in the thing or in you and your attention. Give him attention and fill up his interest - that's how children learn.

> I'll smile and say, "You're awesome. And funny. Please ask if you'd
> like to use it in the future. You know I usually say yes. Until then,
> please return it."

First of all, too many words. When parents use too many words, its a good sign that they aren't listening to kids enough and looking at non-verbal forms of communication (like behavior!) enough. So step back a bit and observe more. Learn to understand your kids without so many words.

Next... if you usually say yes, then why not now? Can you wait thirty seconds? Get another one? One of the benefits of being an adult is that you have the ability to wait and delay gratification - kids don't have that and its not something they learn so much as grow into. It's up to you to be thoughtful and considerate and patient For Him - for now.

> And then he'll try to kick me. Or push me. Or slap me with a towel.

He's frustrated. He's trying to communicate with you and you're not getting the message so he's resorting to more primitive forms of communication. That's All he has right now! He's little. He'll learn better skills, but not if you keep pushing him over the edge.

I'm guessing he's not getting enough attention. Dote on him. Give him Tons of attention. Spend lots and lots of time with him. If you think you're giving enough, assume you've been wrong and give more. Spend more time listening to him and watching him. That way, even if he needs something other than attention, you'll be set up to notice what it is.

That's not to say you shouldn't let him know that you don't want to be hit or kicked, but communication, on your side, needs to be more about listening and understanding than telling and explaining. Isn't that what we want our kids to learn? To listen and understand? Let him see what that part of communication looks like and feel how good it is to receive.