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If you want to be heard, you first need to be prepared!

Communicating with your child and managing your expectations

Many of us have had the experience of talking to our child and not getting a timely response or a response at all. How many times have you asked the same question, repeatedly, to a young child without receiving an answer? And then we repeat it again. All sorts of thoughts may go through our mind, like 'did the child not listen to us?', 'Did the child not understand us?', 'Is the child hiding something and refusing to speak?'; Is the child being disrespectful and not providing us with an answer?

As the parent or carer of a child, we have a responsibility to understand the child’s perspective as well, sometime pre-emptively as, due to their developmental stage, there are some natural limitations in their abilities.

Here we would like to highlight some of the reasons we may be getting responses from our child that do not fulfil our need to be listened too. By understanding these, we can manage our expectations and make sure we help to create messages that will be clear and ensure that the quality of our communication matches our children’s capabilities. At the end of this article you can see simplified schematic of the different processes forming two-way communication, i.e. sharing of information from the parent to the child and back to the parent (Processes of Two-way communication).

Step 1. Prepare your message

A prepared message is always going to be clearer and easier to understand compared to one we deliver on the spot. When we are preparing our message, there are many things we will need to take into consideration, including ourselves, our child and the environment we will be delivering the message to.

A great rubric we can use is the 7 C’s of Communication. Complete; Concise; Clear; Concrete; Correct; Courteous; and to wrap it all up, Considered (see What can we do to improve the quality of our communications with the children and How understandable is our message by our child?)

Step 2. Get child’s attention

For most part of the day, children fully engage with activities. Children of 2-3 years of age focus on one activity and still find it difficult to shift their attention when spoken to. Children at around 3-4 years begin to control their own focus of attention and can shift this between an activity and then us when we speak to them, and at 4-5 years, they can now move their attention between an activity and a speaker without stopping to look at them. If we need to communicate with the child, we have to understand that many times we are interrupting the child’s focus, and that they may not want to be interrupted. We should take the above in consideration before we interrupt and make sure we have their full attention before communicating our message.

Step 3. Deliver message

Your message delivery is as important as the message itself. When communicating, make sure that the emotion, tone and cadence the message is delivered with matches the message you want to send. If your tone and emotion are intense for something that does not require it, your child will find it difficult to listen to the message amongst all the angst. On the other hand, if your delivery does not have the high intensity a situation requires, i.e. your child runs out onto the street and you deliver your message in a nonchalant manner, the urgency of the message will not be delivered correctly. (also see Setting the stage and delivery)

Step 4. Allow time for the child to respond

Any message, no matter how simple we feel it is for us, is much more complicated for the child. Children have a limited vocabulary; they may not have had experience with different meanings of a particular word; and we can be very ambiguous with our use of language. These factors will increase the child’s processing time of our message. Further, the child has to form and deliver their response. Considering that their communication abilities do not yet match their thinking abilities, this will add a further delay in their response. It is important to give a child upwards of 5 seconds to respond, more if our message is more complex, or if the child is younger. For some children, we may have to wait 10-20 seconds for them to understand and respond.

Step 5. Listen

Invariably, your child’s message may be muddled, unclear, grammatically incorrect, or many other things. Human language is a very complex process, either we look at the physical level of how we produce speech, or the actual language itself. We grow into adults, and we still have the odd slip of the tongue and almost always perfectly communicate our thoughts and emotions. Allow the child to make mistakes and do not correct them mid-sentence (see Now it is down to the child to think of their response). Be compassionate and understand that we do our best thinking when we talk, and it is our first time we hear those specific thoughts out aloud. So, we make mistakes, our thoughts are not always expressed in words with the clarity and fidelity we wish, and that is many times worse for the children who have yet to be comfortable in the art of thinking and the complex biomechanics of speaking.

Step 6. Be prepared to repeat or clarify our message

If we need to repeat our message, try to repeat it exactly as you delivered it the first time. Any new information will require the message to be analysed again causing further delays. If you need to clarify your message, make sure you know which part needs clarification, clarify it and repeat the entire sentence again exactly as before.

All 6 steps involve skills that both children and adult need to learn. The best way to learn these skills is through experience, and the child needs to have opportunities and exposure to many experiences. However, we will decide for them; we will force our perspective on them; provide the answers to them; we will interrupt their thinking and communication cycle and stifle their opportunity to form an answer for themselves. Every time we interfere or offer our opinion for them, we take away a learning opportunity. Next time you chat with your child, try not to make it easy for them by completing their sentences, be patient and listen. When they stutter, it is because they are thinking intently and trying to express their thoughts with their yet limited vocalisation skills, vocabulary, grammar and handling their emotions associated with what they are trying to communicate.

Processes of Two-way communication. In our figure below, we can see a simplified visualisation of the steps involved in two-way communication (having a person communicating something to another and receiving a response from the other person, i.e. the parent asking a question to a child and getting a response from the child). In this representation, the parent (sender), needs to ask a question (message) which has to be constructed into a sentence (encode) and delivered through speech (medium) to the child (receiver). The child then is required to make sense of the question (decoding) and think of a response (evaluate) and respond (feedback).

If we want to unpack the steps, the child has to take to provide us with an answer (decode, evaluate, feedback), we start to understand how complex this becomes, what expectations we place on the child and how our expectations match or not with reality.

A simplified visualisation of the steps involved in two-way communication.

What can we do to improve the quality of our communications with the children.

When considering improving the quality of our communication, we should do it from an incorporated approach, taking into consideration ourselves, the listener, and the message. Initially, we need to consider the timing of wanting to pass our message. Is it appropriate in terms of: do I have actually for this? Am I in the right state of mind to pass this message on? Is the listener able to listen to me (emotionally and in terms of availability of attention)? If, yes, then to further hone our message, we can consider the 7 C’s of Communication. Complete; Concise; Clear; Concrete; Correct; Courteous; and to wrap it all up, Considered;. These are some questions we can ask ourselves that will help us improve the quality of our messages by addressing these points:

- Complete

Does my message provide information on the ‘Who’, ‘What’, ‘Why’, ‘When’, ‘Where’ and ‘How’? If not, we can expect further questions to clarify that.

- Concise

Are we able to pass on all the important information without muddling the message with irrelevant information?

- Clear

Are you able to provide your information without jargon or ambiguous words?

- Concrete

Does your message speak to what is real and something we can see and describe? Is it valid and does it follow in logic and from accepted conditions?

- Correct

Is the information you are passing representative of the truth?

- Courteous

Am I talking and behaving in a respectful way when I am passing on my message?

- Considered

Have I put any thought in my message or am I thinking aloud? Have I made an effort to address the other 7 C’s of communication?

Lastly, all these need practice. Communicating effectively requires a lot of practice and we have to be able to accept that during that practice, our messages might be a bit stilted. But the more we practice, the better we will get. We can not always communicate in the most effective way possible, and the medium of speech allows us to be flexible and responsive to our messages. So, we should be compassionate with ourselves and others when communicating and act in most situations in ‘good faith’.

Setting the stage and delivery. More frequently than not, we talk to the child when their attention is elsewhere, i.e. the child is playing with something and we ask a question without having their attention. In this case, we have failed our responsibility to get the attention of the person we wish to communicate with. A simple, “excuse me (child’s name), may I interrupt you from your game for a bit, please". I want to ask you a question about … and would like to know what you think about it, as it will help me do ….”. In this sentence, we have the following addressed:

A) We are respectful to the child by acknowledging that we are interrupting them from an activity.

B) We are informing them of what we want

C) Very importantly, we have given them the context of what the question will be about. This will help them understand the message more effectively as they would have made a mental adjustment to their thinking and align their thoughts with what is coming next.

D) We are informing them of what is required of them

E) We are giving them an understanding of how what they do will be helpful to us, giving them a sense of purpose and usefulness. The more concrete the effect on us, the better.

Is our child capable of understanding our message? Once we have made certain we have the child’s attention, we can pass on the message/question to the child. Now, the child needs to hear each word, understand each word on its own and in the context of the sentence. However, this is not a simple task. Issues that may arise are the limited vocabulary of a child and the many meanings words have adopted.

A typical 4 and 5-year-old's vocabulary is between 1,000 and 2,000 words. Are the words we are using within of the child’s vocabulary? If not, then we will cause the child to pause their listening and question that word. That means the rest of the sentence has not been received and that we have created a question in the child’s mind about what the new word means. So now we have a child who has not heard the complete sentence and is also curious about this new word. And we know how much of a strong motivator curiosity is for a child.

Regarding the multiplicity in meanings of the same word, I would entertain you with the most extreme example. In a debate of lexicographers preparing the new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary about which of all the verbs in the English language enjoys the most meanings, the seemingly humble three-letter word, run had 645 meanings for the verb form alone. Yes, if we have provided the context of the message, and the sentence surrounding the word, we have limited the possible meanings considerably, a message can be still misinterpreted very easily.

1. Use word you know the child has in their vocabulary (no slang words, no jargon)

2. If you have to use a word they may not know, explain what that word means

3. Use short, concise, and simple sentences

Now it is down to the child to think of their response. The child has become the sender in our communication diagram and has to form a message, encode it into language, and deliver it to us. All the issues that were highlighted above are now occurring in reverse. Has the child got the vocabulary to express what they want? Can they form a coherent sentence that expresses what they are thinking? Have they got our attention or are we impatiently questioning the child again and again and again? But wait, there is more.

At this point, the child’s mind is working in overdrive. The child must evaluate the question from their perspective and come up with an answer. We need to understand that at this point we do not know if the child knows the meaning of all the words, and if they have perceived the right meaning of each word. So, they may be on the wrong track already and come up with an answer that is irrelevant to the question. This is more a reflection of our delivery of the message being unclear or easy to be misunderstood than the child’s understanding/attention.

If the child has understood everything correctly, they will need to evaluate everything against their experiences, their current needs, and future wants and then decide on what their response will be. Again, this is a very complex situation for the child to work through.

The evaluation against their experiences is the simplest part, as this occurs mostly ‘subconsciously’. Understanding their current needs and future wants is where they may get stuck. Even adults have difficulty understanding their needs, sometimes conflating a behaviour or a tool to fulfil the need as the actual need.

Our current understanding of children’s development is that children do not see a self that extends far into the future or the past; they live in the moment. Whether this is an ability that the children will develop later, or whether the children heavily prioritise the ‘now’ is yet to be determined. Irrespective of whichever is true, any answer we most likely will receive will be heavily biased towards the current needs. This, by default, vitiates the point of most questions as we usually ask a question that involves ‘what happens next’, not ‘now’. Even if ‘what happens next’ is virtually the next thing that will happen, it is still not ‘now’, hence of little importance to children. The younger the child, the more biased towards ‘now’ they will be.

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