Simple Words and Sentences for Effective Communication with Kids
I grew up hearing my mother say in Italian, “Soltanto la tua madre ti dir? di mettere il rossetto in modo che tu possa essere pi? graziosa di lei” — which roughly translates into: “Only your mother will tell you to go put lipstick on so that you can be prettier than she is.” This was her way of saying, “Trust me. I know what’s best for you.” Other lasting advice: “Wipe front to back” and, whenever she was at a loss for words, “Get a grip.” “Wipe front to back” was obvious, but “get a grip?” Get a grip on what? I was a literal kid, and her words didn’t calm me down—they just made me hold on to banisters very tightly. My misunderstanding of my mother’s advice made me wonder how much my own kids, 8-year-old Conrad and 5-year-old Dashiell, understand when I dole out my precious words of wisdom. Do I need to tweak what I say so that my kids know what I’m talking about and are actually able to follow through on what I have to say?
“The most effective way to speak to a kid is to use simple words and sentences that allow you to accept their feelings but follow through on your rules,” says Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. And don’t undermine yourself either. Dr. Mogel cautions against adding qualifiers such as “okay?” at the end of your request. If you give a child the opportunity to say no, they may use their veto power whenever they can—and it will seem as though you’re not fully committed to what you’re saying. With these basics in mind, we rounded up the best phrases parents should repeat.
1. “I Need To Think About That.”
Parents often suffer from an instant-response reflex. “Many of us believe we have to think on our feet, come up with an answer immediately, and reach consensus with a 4-year-old,” says Dr. Mogel. But blurting out the first thing that comes to your mind can lead to regret and frustration for both you and your child. Saying “I need to think about that” gives you authority, buys you time, and also introduces the idea that people think about things and weigh the pros and cons before coming up with a response, says Dr. Mogel. It can also be habit-forming. If your child hears you say, “I’m going to have to think about that” often, they will become comfortable taking their time when making their own decisions, and this can have long-term benefits. By the time they reach middle school, they will be so used to the idea of thinking before they speak that they’ll be more likely to say, “I’m going to have to think about that” to their friends—increasing the odds of avoiding spontaneous participation in ill-advised, illegal, or just plain stupid behavior.
2. “How Does That Make You Feel?”
Many parents are guilty of giving their children too much praise. (I am.) But instead of laying on the enthusiasm when kids do something praiseworthy, Dr. Mogel suggests asking “How does that make you feel?” “Even though it’s a bit passive-aggressive (kids know when you’re trying to get them to say what you want to hear), what’s nice about this response is that it gives you a break from jumping up and down with praise and encourages your child to get in touch with what they find satisfying, rather than thinking only about the end result,” says Dr. Mogel. It also works in less-than-feel-good situations. For instance, when Conrad forgot his backpack two days in a row, I tried hard to hide my annoyance and instead asked him about his feelings. “Messy and mad” was his response. My question made him pause and reflect on how frustrated he was, something he probably wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t asked him. The next morning as he headed out the door, he turned to me and said matter-of-factly, “I’m not forgetting my backpack today.”
Use this when your kid presents you with a problem or if they’ve done something they know will get them in trouble, like knocking over the container of milk after you’ve warned them to move it away from the table’s edge. Simply saying “Wow” lets them know that you’re acknowledging what just happened, but you’re not committing to a response right away. This will give you a moment to put the situation in perspective and figure out how you want to handle it. “I especially like this one because it counters our whole culture of giving instant, urgent responses,” explains Dr. Mogel.
4. “Let’s See If We Can Find Something Good In This.”
A rainy day. A dropped Lego masterpiece, its pieces scattered all over the floor. Or horror of all horrors: a canceled playdate. These are all depressing situations for a kid. The secret to helping your child manage disappointment is to not rush in and rescue them from feeling bad. Instead, you want to help them flex their coping skills by letting them be upset. Of course, it’s not easy to listen to your child go on a tear about how they’ll never have another playdate as long as they live. But after they’ve said their piece, sit down next to them and say, “Let’s find the good part.” Be prepared for some push-back; after all, it’s hard to see the upside of not having anyone to play with. But stick with it by asking them to think about what’s still positive (let’s have an indoor jump-rope contest) and what can still work (we can bake banana bread even though Oliver isn’t coming over) in spite of the annoying stuff. You’ll help your child learn to adapt and manage with what he has.
5. “Listen To Your Body.”
Many parents are more in touch with their kid’s body than with their own. We know how long they’ve slept and the last time they ate and pooped—even when they’re 8 years old, not 8 months. However, if you habitually manage your child’s physical needs, they’ll figure out that they don’t have to and won’t learn to be self-regulating, says Dr. Mogel. When your child says, “I have a stomachache,” don’t rush to share your own conclusion (like “Of course you do. You haven’t gone potty/eaten/eaten anything but PB&J for 48 hours”). Instead, help them go through a scan of likely causes. Eventually, they learn to pay attention to their body, they may be able to recognize that the butterflies in their tummy are different from hunger pains. Or that they can’t fall asleep because their mind is racing. Once your child can identify what is going on with her body, they’ll be able to respond in the appropriate way.
6. “Take a Breath.”
We all need to slow down, but in our rush to get ready for the bus, soccer practice, or doctor appointments, it’s easy to forget how. Saying this puts an end to the urgency that so many kids feel during those transitional moments between activities, and it reminds you to take a breath too. “It’s the equivalent of putting the oxygen mask on yourself first and then on your child,” Dr. Mogel says. Kids mirror our moods, and if you can stop and call a time-out to breathe, you will be teaching your child how to slow down and manage stressful situations. It resets the tone of your day and gives you and your kid permission to be okay with right where you are.
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