Few subjects in parenting are as fundamental, or as important, as communication. Humans function so much by language, whether implicit or explicit, that learning how to communicate effectively affects virtually every other sphere of family relations.
But developing good strategies for good communication, based on sound ideas, is extremely complicated. Individuals differ so widely in age, temperament and circumstances that outlining a ‘one size fits all’ approach is guaranteed to fail at the outset.
Does that mean that every parent has to start from scratch and simply improvise for 20 years? Fortunately, no. Both cognitive studies and generations of experience have shown that some methods do work better than others.
One essential element is suggested in the short list above. Since individuals differ in those ways and so many more, a method that accepts that fundamental fact has a better chance of producing healthy results.
An effective communication approach between parent and child will start with openly recognizing facts. Just as good communication between adults requires honesty, so will that between parent and child. Children, as any parent knows, are very intuitive. They sense very quickly when they are being lied to.
That doesn’t imply that parents must, or should, be so frank as to answer fully every question put to them. Parents are individuals too and are entitled to a sphere that respects their privacy.
How much to share, and in what manner, will take into account the individual child’s age and level of genuine interest. For example, when communicating ‘lessons’ about appropriate behavior with respect to other people’s property, picking the time and place is helpful.
Using a shared experience, such as a TV program being watched or something seen while on a joint shopping trip, can be a good springboard. At the same time, approaching the talk in a way that makes it a discussion rather than a lecture will benefit both parent and child.
The child sees that his or her viewpoint is respected while they benefit from the experience and ability to articulate that the parent has in greater abundance. Despite their occasional bravado, children know they don’t know as much as adults and look to them for input. When that input is delivered in a respectful, honest manner most children will respond appropriately most of the time – provided the approach is followed consistently.
Children are also very intuitive about sensing hypocrisy and observant about any inconsistency between ‘the rules’ and the parent’s behavior. Sometimes embarrassingly so!
Part of that process involves being willing to listen attentively and fully to the child’s point of view. Most parents know the delight of hearing the wisdom ‘out of the mouths of babes’ that children can exhibit. The child’s honest appraisal of what they observe is often insightful and refreshing.
Echoing back, in the parent’s own words, what the child has said will help both parties. The child observes that they have been listened to, while at the same time gaining additional insight from the experience of the parent. The parent gains the deep satisfaction of observing his or her child develop and the joy of interacting with an individual who is immensely important to them.
One form of this is sometimes called the ‘stop, look and listen’ approach. It entails – when feasible – stopping what the parent is doing, looking directly at the child and listening completely without interruption before responding.
It helps the child practice communication in an atmosphere of respect and allows the parent to get hugely important information about what their child is attending to and how he or she is processing that experience.
The phrase is overworked, but this is one approach that is truly a win-win situation.