The Hidden Art of
Communicating with Children
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Remember the old adage, “Silence is golden”? As parents, we have a hard time with this notion. We believe that when a child makes a statement, he is implicitly asking for a response. And, of course, we oblige, thinking that communication with our child is important. But here’s a new notion for you: You don’t have to respond to every comment that comes out of your child’s mouth. Sometimes the most effective form of communication is keeping silent. There are times when it’s okay for your child to have the first, the last, and the only word.
This is especially true for those times kids come up with “announcements” that sound remarkably like complaints, perhaps even remarks that unfairly blame you. Typically parents respond to these comments by suggesting, clarifying, or simply disagreeing. But these seemingly innocent comebacks have the potential to ignite a power struggle since they unwittingly challenge the kids to make their own point even more strongly.
Instead of chiming in, simply listen. Show you’re paying attention, but don’t feel compelled to comment when it’s not necessary. Remember, silence is often a valuable communication skill. … Silence is [one] way to acknowledge your child’s problem without becoming part of it. You are not being hostile or rejecting; at the same time, you’re not setting yourself up to be the fall guy for your child’s anger. Believe it or not, most of the time kids say things to get them off their chests and they really don’t expect you to do anything.
Remember those easy-to-forget, undervalued words “Oh,” “Hmm,” “Really”—those short lifesavers that keep you out of a fight. These overlooked words are just as versatile as they are short. You can use them in many ways. The secret is in your tone of voice and how you punctuate your line. You may want to punctuate it with a heavy period, meaning “That is the end of this discussion”; an exclamation mark, meaning “Your comment has made an impression on me”; or even a question mark, meaning “I really do want more information.”
When you use the “silence is golden” and “keep it short and simple” skills, you can:
— stop a battle before it begins.
— acknowledge to your child that you’ve heard him.
— keep yourself from becoming defensive.
— avoid getting caught up in an issue that you have no intention of solving.—Evonne Weinhaus and Karen Friedman1
The importance of developing our listening ability is directly affirmed by James, a man who knew Jesus intimately: “Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak.”2 The two terse commands contained in the beginning of this verse fit nicely together. When we take time to listen responsively—and avoid the error of answering with authoritative pronouncements—the messages given back to us by our children are far less likely to be obnoxiously defensive. This, in turn, reduces the tension and may well help us avoid angry exchanges.—Dr. Bob Pedrick3
Hear from Me about your children. This is a gift I could bestow upon you to make your job of parenting easier. It is a gift certificate which never expires, has no cash limit, and is redeemable anywhere, at any time.
I can show you the reasons your children are behaving the way they are, their motives, the root of the problem, and the solution. I can give you the words to say that will help and inspire them. I can point out the good things that you can commend them for, and show you what the weaknesses are that you need to work with them on next. I can comfort and encourage you when you are weary and discouraged, and give you patience and faith when you are in need.—Jesus, speaking in prophecy4
Children will behave more responsibly and maturely if they are talked to with the same respect you would give an adult. If a child feels that you expect him to behave in a responsible way, then he’ll more than likely try to fulfill your expectations. We should try as much as possible to put ourselves in our children’s place and communicate with them in the way that we would like to be communicated with if we were them.—Maria Fontaine5
How would you feel if someone who was [in a position of authority over you] got angry and screamed at you? You’d probably feel like shriveling up and blowing away. Add an audience, and you’d feel verbally tarred and feathered. Now, you might quickly do what that authority figure wanted you to do, but you’d despise that person for embarrassing you.
Children aren’t that much different from grown-ups in this respect. They don’t like being belittled or demeaned, especially in front of an audience.
It would be best if you could catch yourself before you got so upset that you felt like screaming. Here are some ideas:
If your child isn’t paying attention the first or second time you speak, try lowering your voice instead of raising it. Go over to your child, look him in the eyes and whisper your message.
Or you might want to go one step further and try the silent method. Just go and stand next to your child and don’t say anything until he or she turns and looks at you. When you have her full attention, make your request. Sometimes just placing your hand softly against the child’s back and waiting will get her attention.
Once you have your child’s attention, make your request clearly and firmly. Then make sure you follow up so you are certain she is doing what you want. When you do this, you’ll find a significant increase in your child’s compliance without any harmful side effects. And, you’ll feel a whole lot better by having tempered your temper!—Dr. Kay Kuzma6
Do you ever sit down with your child and talk for a few minutes only about his or her concerns? Finding a few minutes each day to do this will pay handsome dividends in building a relationship of loving trust with your child.
What will you talk about? What is your child concerned about most? People who are good conversationalists will tell you that you can talk for hours with anyone of any age, at any intellectual level, adult or child, and hold them captivated. All you have to do is show a genuine interest in that person and ask questions that help you explore that interest. What does this person do? How does he do it? What does she like? Why?
If you want people to show loving concern for your interests, think how much more your child wants you, as a parent, the most important person in the world to him, to show that loving concern for his interests.
But exactly what should you say when you take those few precious moments to talk with your child? That depends on what your child has done. Did he just come home from school? Is it time to read her a bedtime story? Did he just break a favorite dish? Is she having a temper tantrum? Is he sassing you back about something? Did she just come through the door crying because some friends weren’t being kind to her?
Start with the circumstance. That’s always a good starting point, because that is uppermost in the child’s mind at that time. Then go from there.—V. Gilbert Beers7
The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.—Proverbs 12:188
The hearts of the wise make their mouths prudent, and their lips promote instruction. Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.—Proverbs 16:23–249
Published on Anchor July 2013. Read by Irene Quiti Vera.
Music by Michael Dooley.
1 Stop Struggling with Your Child (Harper Collins, 1998).
2 James 1:19.
3 The Confident Parent (David C. Cook Publishing Co., 1979).
4 Originally published April 1998.
5 Originally published February 1993.
6 A Hug and a Kiss—And a Kick in the Pants (LifeJourney Books, 1987).
7 Parents: Talk with Your Children (Harvest House Publishers, 1988).