“The most important things are the hardest to say, because words diminish them.” Stephen King
Communication is a means of connection.
Connection fosters relationships. And relationships are what really matter in life. So here’s the details:
Communication. It’s not just words. It’s what we do. Our facial expression. Our tone of voice. Our eye contact – or not. Our body position. It’s also our speaking and writing.
So everything we do can be interpreted as communication – even if we don’t mean it! So that person you look at when she walks by you in the airport terminal may respond to you with a smile and a nod. And that guy slightly behind and aside of you in the ticket line will probably not cut in front of you when you have your back turned to him. He won’t smile at you either.
Our children read our body language and tone of voice so well. They are tuned in and so skilled at social and communication cues. In fact, I’ll bet our children can identify our moods or intentions more quickly than we can. And why not? We are their first teachers about life. They watch us very carefully. Their friends are their next best teachers, but don’t get that chance until school age. As parents, we have the chance to get it right from the beginning.
October is National Communicate with Your Child month. Crayola is excited about this, as well as other organizations such as Zero to Three in Washington DC whose mission is to ensure that all babies and toddlers have a strong start in life. But seriously, shouldn’t every month be a Communicate with Your Child Month? Or even every day?
This never became clearer to me than after I had a child of my own. Even after years of excellent training in early childhood/infant mental health, and working in clinics with families and babies and children for over a decade, I was still brought to a standstill the first day of my child’s life. From day one, I became acutely aware that my tiny little daughter was communicating to all of us in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at the hospital. She was very low birthweight – 2 lbs. 10 oz., born at 28 weeks. So I tried really, really hard to understand what she was telling me. I wanted to know everything about her. Of course much of her smiling (it looked like smiling) and grimacing, and moving her legs in excitement or distress were partially her reflexes. But her forceful cry when stuck with feeding or medication needles was certainly communication. And her calming quiet, when I could hold her skin-to-skin was incredibly satisfying communication. In her little covered, temperature-controlled isolette, she began to turn toward me when I would talk to her, recognizing my voice. Wow, what a Mom reward, right?
I spent three months watching every moment possible of her development and learning to read her “signs” – her communication to me. I had lots of practice with non-verbal communication from having seven dogs at home over the years, so I was a trained observer. I knew from my training with the best mother-infant/early childhood professionals in the world that responding to communication from infants is a vital part of early infant mental health. If infants learn that they are responded to (respected) and learn the rhythm of reciprocal back-and-forth with their caregiver, they gain self-confidence and are open to learning. I think that’s why babies are so cute and mothers universally coo and smile at their infants. It’s a hard-wired phenomenon that keeps our species intact. A newborn nuzzles at her mother’s breast. Her mother says, “Oh, you must be hungry. Here you go.” This baby is learning that her loved ones will respond to her signals and communications. There begins the foundation of that fundamental need for all of us to be loved, accepted and cared for. Infants learn to get their needs met and that, in turn, begins them on their own road of learning to care for others.
When babies hear their parents speak and sing, they start to learn spoken language. When babies hear everyday sounds, their hearing system develops as a mechanism for learning about their world. Repeating a baby’s sounds or communication back to her is empowering. I remember encouraging my husband to stick out his tongue at our daughter at one month (four months for us because we age-adjusted for her prematurity) because I knew that she would imitate him – a major Dad-reward. They were both thrilled to be communicating.
I remember driving my daughter around in her car seat to calm her, and to-and-from daycare, telling her all about everything we drove by, and pointing at things: “Look at those maple trees and that green grass.” “Ooh, there’s a stoplight ahead. Mommy’s going to slow the car down.” At home, I would tell her, “I’m putting on her coat now. It is red.” Yes, I’m sure everyone was amused, and I often felt like I was a live Mr. Rogers or Sesame Street show, constantly naming and identifying things. It was as if I was teaching someone all about our world from a foreign country and language.
Ah-ha! I realized. I was! My professional training was spot-on when it taught me about the importance of narrating everyday life and routines to young children. Simply exposing my daughter to words and gestures was an invaluable part of her development. And I was pretty committed to helping her get ahead of any prematurity-related issues.
I then found myself really conscious of my early parenting as I experimented with all of the professional suggestions I had learned and shared with parents during my career: Respectful listening (looking at the speaker); Being simple and direct (not rambling); Saying what to do (e.g., walk) rather than what not to do (“no running!”); Not threatening (“if you don’t do this, then…”), Giving choices (“green beans or broccoli” – I’m serious about this choice!); Be a good role model.
A major part of discipline is learning how to talk with children. I loved learning that the word discipline comes from the word disciple comes from the Latin word disciplina which means to instruct or offer knowledge. The way we talk to our children teaches them how to talk to others. So it makes total sense that if we talk to our children with kindness and respect, they will likely follow our lead and take on our manners and tones as they becomes more verbal. And, when we expect this kind of respectful communication from others, we are modeling how our children should expect to be treated by others as well. It’s all good.
So jumping ahead, 8 years later, my daughter “loves to talk” and tells me this when I ask her if she can stop talking for just a few minutes. She is full of wordless expression and can communicate more in a single look than in a sentence. She “reads” people incredibly well and has that 6th sense about others’ intentions. Like her father’s skills as a pilot, she is an incredible observer.
When I lose my patience or am less than thoughtful about wanting to listen or explain to her, I tell her I’m sorry and let her know why. Usually it is about me and my time constraints. Sometimes it is about her endless dialogue that I don’t have time for – so I guess that is about me and my time constraints again. But we talk about it, she understands that communication is an experience with another person, unable to be separated from the relationship. And I found that this is true for not only my child, but also for my husband, friends, other children and adults in my life. The communication experienced throughout our lives affects the root of our relationships with one another. The number one reason couples go to therapy is for communication issues. It is important stuff,
So that human capacity for complex communication, paired with our desire to connect with others by exchanging ideas and feelings, both verbally and non-verbally, is something we can help our children master.
Communication is a means of connection. Connection fosters relationships. And relationships are what really matter in life. So go for it. Be aware of yourself. We each have the power to craft our relationships through our communication. And as the wise author, entrepreneur and public speaker, Seth Godin, says, “The less people know, the more they yell.”
by Linda Butler, Ph.D., LCSW
Director of Research & Outcomes