How Do You Talk to Young Children?

By Linda Knittel, Senior Editor

I’ve only been at this parenting game for a mere seven years, so I don’t expect to have it all figured out; but in general I think I’m doing a pretty decent job—at least most of the time. That’s why when I discovered—through a mindful parenting class—that the gentle way I had been phrasing requests to my seven-year-old son was actually the source of most of our conflict, I was floored.

Of course, gentle is not itself a bad thing. Kids deserve gentle; we all do. But what kids need more than anything is direct communication, and it’s easy for gentle requests to become passive and confusing, at least in how I was crafting them.

What I learned was there are really only three different voices we use to convey our needs: passive, assertive, and aggressive. It seems I, and many of the parents in the class, had been doing a dance between passive and aggressive when trying to get our kiddos to do what we needed them to. Interactions would often go something like this:

“Hey, sweetie, it’s close to bedtime; can you put your pajamas on, please?” Sure, it’s gentle and loving, but it’s also an open-ended request; and since my son would hear it as optional, he would just keep on playing. I’d ask one or two more times in the same sweet way, and then once sufficiently frustrated by his inaction, I would switch to an aggressive voice: “Put your pajamas on now; it’s getting late and there’s school tomorrow.” My son was left upset and confused. “Why was Mom being sweet and now she’s mad?” It turns out my need was never clear to him. I was asking a question, not giving a clear directive.

The solution was so simple, and yet so profound. All I had to do was make eye contact, use the assertive voice, and state my needs and expectations clearly. Now, using a calm, even voice I say, “It’s time to get your pajamas on.” That’s it. Usually there’s not a bit of resistance, but when there is, I follow up with the old “two positive choices” technique, helping my son feel empowered by offering him options. For example, “Do you want the blue pajamas or the red ones?” Or, “Would you like me to help you, or would you like to do it alone?”

Using the assertive voice is easy; just follow these five steps:

  1.   Tell children what to do: State your wants, needs, and expectations clearly and simply.
  2.   Send a nonverbal message by the tone of your voice: Match your voice to your statement (calm and even).
  3.   Be clear and direct: Give children choices only when they really have choices.
  4.   Provide useable information: Give directives that include useable, helpful information.
  5.   Remember the intent behind your communication: The goal of assertive communication is always clarity to help your child be as successful as possible.

It might sound a bit hyperbolic, but in all honesty, this little shift in my communication has totally transformed my interactions with my son. I’m not going to pretend that getting him in bed each night or out the door on school days is always struggle-free, but those moments of tension are very rare these days, and I know we are both grateful for that.

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