Friday, January 27, 2012

Opening Up the GD Toolbox: Use Your Words

"Be careful."
"Be good."
"Be nice."

In this case, "Be careful!" means "Stay still."
What do these mean to a 20 month old?  If you stop and think about it, phrases like these are vague, at best.  Does "be careful" mean to walk slowly?  Avoid a hot stove?  Climb down from the furniture? Not spill the juice?  Touch the vase gently?  For a toddler, even an older child, it will probably require considerable experimentation to figure out exactly what it means in a given situation.

Sadly, that experimentation and desire to understand runs a grave risk of resembling disobedience or defiance.  I can picture a little one thinking, "Yeah!  I've heard 'be careful' before!  Maybe I'll get it this time.  Is it stop jumping?"  He turns to his mom with a grin and a twinkle--only to get scolded as the food slips from his plate.  And she sighs to her friends, "He grinned at me right before he did it.  I know he is defying me on purpose."

What about "be good" and "be nice"?  Do they mean to be quiet? To share toys? To stop fussing? How do they know? (And I will go ahead and say that I think all babies are good and nice, regardless of their behavior).

"No" is probably the worst of the examples, and one whose reputation is most grossly misunderstood.  I've heard parents who think that avoiding the use of "no" means to be permissive and indulgent.  That isn't what I am talking about.  I do believe that being part of our family means consideration in the way we set up our house, and that setting them up for success is important.  But there will be times when a child's will must be thwarted (although a wise parent can often find ways to meet everyone's needs in a pleasant way).  Anyway, my point is that saying "no" is generally poor communication.

Lip Service Production Photos (67)
Image credit binkle_28 on Flickr
For one thing, it is ridiculously overused, and that breeds contempt.  Much more importantly, a young child's ability to process language means that the "no" is often lost in whatever words follow it.  So a toddler hears "hitting" instead of "no hitting".  Even adults are susceptible.  If I say, "Don't think of dancing monkeys," what just popped into your mind?

Another one that people of all ages struggle with is being overwhelmed with too much at once.  Have you ever studied a foreign language?  Have you ever felt frustration mount as you frantically try to grasp the meaning of a word or phrase as the speaker just keeps going?  English (or Spanish or whatever you speak) is still a foreign language to little ones.  They are still working at comprehension of even basic terms (does your toddler ever mix up pronouns?  Use the wrong form of the past tense?), and too many instructions strung together are going to blur. 

The answer for all of these is the same:  give simple, precise instructions for what you do want.  Instead of telling a child what not to do and hoping that they magically invent a better alternative, focus on what you do want them to do.  Be specific and brief.  "Walk slowly."  "Feet on the floor."  "Freeze."  "Gentle touches."   It takes a lot of practice, for us as well as the kidlets.  And of course, as they get older, their understanding increases.  Even so, the way we speak makes a difference in their focus.

Tone of voice is an important tool, too.  Some parents use the right words but with a scary voice that distracts from the message.  Others seem to assume that gentle discipline means saying everything in a syrupy, sing-song voice (often with superfluous sprinklings of "sweetie," "honey," "darling," and "OK?").   That would drive me batty within seconds, and confuse my kids to no end.  It really is hard to hear ourselves, though.  Ask a partner to listen to how your tone of voice comes across, or even tape yourself sometime.  It can be very enlightening!  (Have you ever listened to your voice on an answering machine and thought that is sounds different?  It is even more true when you examine tone of voice and content!).

It is so easy to tell our children to use their words.  Honestly, though, we adults have a lot of learning to do when it comes to words, too.  It starts with giving clear instructions.  Keeping our directions simple and precise.  Telling what *to* do, not just what *not* to do.  Making sure that our tone of voice doesn't distract from the message.  As we practice, we will become much more fluent communicators.


[4/365] Handy Man
Image credit goaliej54 on Flickr
Moving away from punitive parenting requires a brand new set of tools.  Let's open it up together! For the rest of the series, click here.  And if gentle discipline is revealing areas where you need to work on yourself, see if any of these personal tools resonate with you.

Looking for more practical tips?  Check out my favorite post from the Hippie Housewife on The Hows of Discipline (and read through all the comments!),  Pearl in Oyster's 52 Tool Cards series and Aha! Parenting's blog.  Do you need inspiration and a reminder of why and how to do this?  Read Emerging Mummy's Practices of Mothering and Positive Parenting: Toddlers and Beyond.  If you have other great resources or ideas, please add them in the comments.

1 comment:

Amy said...

I like the suggestion of using short phrases. I try to tell Gus what to do rather than what not to do, but I think I am rather too verbose sometimes! I will try to keep this in mind.