In writing about how to shape and influence children’s behavior, I often reference the importance of “right” action over a relentless stream of words, lectures and negotiations. This point remains critically important, as parental actions do matter more than words. The same is true for any leader, hoping to impact the behavior of those she leads. However, it would be a mistake to suggest that the verbal message doesn’t matter. It certainly does matter, and we all know that. Thus, let’s look at six critical points to keep in mind any time that you are trying to reach your child with your words.
6 ways to make the message matter
1. Use your grown-up voice It is difficult to know exactly when to make a transition from one method of parenting to another, based upon age. However, this one is straightforward. Often, I find parents speaking to their kids still using that toddler voice. Abandon that. Instead, use your grown-up voice and speak to them with respect. Imagine speaking to co-worker or a nephew graduating from college. That’s the voice you want, but simply add an easeful, loving smile to it. Perfect!
2. Stop using controlling, demanding words No one likes to be commanded around. No one. Yet, if you listen carefully, many of us continually speak in commanding ways. “Pick up your shoes.” “Put that away.” “Leave your brother alone.” Yuk! Who wants that! Inevitably, children begin to resist such language because there is no respect in it. Would you respect someone speaking to you that way? Of course not. So please stop it now.
3. Inform, rather than command When it’s time to go, or time for a transition, focus on informing the kids rather than commanding them. I like the phrase, “It’s time to _____.” Here are some examples: “It’s time to get your shoes on because we are going outside.” “Since I am leaving in three minutes, it’s time to get ready.” “It’s time to cut that off because dinner is ready.” Now, nothing is magic. But this breaks you out of the commanding and demanding language patterns and creates an atmosphere of respect.
4. When it’s important, speak only when the kids are listening You might be saying to yourself, “Really? Who couldn’t figure that one out?” Well, the trick is getting them to pay attention WHILE you are speaking. How many of you have tried talking to your kids and they stare at the phone or computer? Or they are slouched so far over in the chair that you can’t see their eyes? Or maybe they just stare through you with that deer in the headlight look? Either way, if you have something important, it is critical to get their attention. Do this by reserving your “talks” to times when you have leverage. I suggest, for older kids, that you simply shut down all electronics about an hour before dinner and inform all involved that there will be a 15-minute chat before dinner. And that electronics will be turned on again once everyone has been able to prove that they understand (by summarizing the message back to mom or dad). This approach gets their attention and ensures that you will be heard.
5. If the message is important, make sure non-verbal cues are used as reminders Too often, when there is something to be remembered, we use our voice as the reminder. Bad plan if we want to have our voice respected. Instead, set up non-verbal cues, such as alarms or emails or automated texts to your kids. Tell them that this is the only reminder you are going to get—and stick to it. This is so important, because we get our voices out of the daily reminder business and reserve our voices for more significant things.
6. Talk about what you want., not about what you don’t want It is easy to fall into the habit of discussing what you “don’t want” the kids to do or say. This applies to the short-term chats and the important discussions about long-term outcomes. When you want your message to matter, point the discussion in the direction of what you want them to do, rather than talk about what you don’t want, which is usually fear-based. Of course, you can mention those fears, but don’t dwell there.
Particularly, in the day-to-day moments, only mention the actions or behaviors you want. Not those you don’t want. Here are a few good examples: “Please double-check your work before I review it with you.” “Remember that you are emptying the dishwasher before going outside today.” “I will be on some business calls, so please play quietly so you can enjoy your game later today, as well.”
When you bring all these points together and give it a few weeks, you will see that your words are making more of an impact. Please don’t be fooled, however: Good words will not fix a bad parenting plan or substitute for right action in the moment. Thus, use these suggestions as part of an action-based parenting plan and you will find your message not only getting through, but making a difference.
Dr. Randy Cale offers practical guidance for a host of parenting concerns. For more information visit TerrificParenting.com.