As we all recall from the adorable television show “peanuts,” whatever grownups say to children sounds like, “wah wah wah.” We can tell from the looks on their faces this in a pretty accurate description, and I often wonder why adults sound like that.
Well, after working with children for almost a decade I came to the realization that as adults we make the mistake of talking or explain things for a long period of time.
When we go on and on, kids tune us out (hence, “wah wah wah”). Researchers have shown that the human brain can keep only four “chunks” of information or unique ideas in short-term (active) memory at once. This amounts to about 30 seconds or one or two sentences of speaking.
So how can we fix this?
A major part of discipline is learning how to talk to kids so they will listen. The way you talk to your child teaches him how to talk to others. Here are some habits that have worked for me when I talk to children.
1. Connect Before You Direct
Before giving your child directions, squat to child’s-eye level and engage your child in eye-to-eye contact to get his attention. Teach him how to focus: “Mary, I need your eyes.” “Billy, I need your ears.” Offer the same body language when listening to the child. Be sure not to make your eye contact so intense that your child perceives it as controlling rather than connecting.
2. Address the Child
Open your request with the child’s name, “Lauren, will you please….” I've often heard it said that children don't hear the first word we say. "Don't run in class" can sound like "Run in class!"
3. Stay Brief
We use the one-sentence rule: Put the main directive in the opening sentence. The longer you ramble, the more likely your child is to become parent-deaf. Rambling on about an issue (“wah wah wah”) gives the child the feeling that you’re not quite sure what you want to say. If she can keep you talking she can get you sidetracked.
4. Stay Simple
Use short sentences with one-syllable words. Listen to how kids communicate with each other and take note. Remember, when your child shows that glazed, disinterested look, you are no longer being understood. You don’t need to dumb it down, but your vocabulary and concepts should be within the child’s grasp.
5. “When… then….”
“When you get your teeth brushed, then we’ll begin the story.” “When your work is finished, then you can go outside and play.” “When,” which implies that you expect obedience, works better than “if,” which suggests that the child has a choice when you don’t mean to give him one.
These suggestions won’t solve all communication problems, but by increasing the quality and quantity of genuine understanding adults will seem less like Peanuts characters.