Here are a five simple rules to help ensure that your messages get through to your children loud and clear.
1. Use Multiple Conduits
Research has shown that children possess different learning styles, typically categorized as visual (by watching), auditory (by listening), kinesthetic (by doing), reading/writing, and tactile (by feeling). Ideally, you should send messages through the conduits that play to your children’s learning strengths, thus increasing the likelihood that your messages will get through. At the same time, despite children’s specific learning styles, when you send messages through multiple conduits, including their dominant and non-dominant styles, you are communicating the messages to them in more and varied ways. And these multiple and diverse avenues embed the message in your children through different psychological and physiological systems which will mean a message that is ingrained more deeply and completely.
2. Loudspeaker and Stealth Messages
You can convey messages to your children either directly or indirectly. “Loudspeaker” messages include telling them the message you want them to get, pointing it out in other people, or telling stories with the specific message in mind. These straightforward messages ensure that there is no confusion about their intent and that your children are paying attention and focused on the message. The risks with direct messages are that your children may get fed up with all of your messaging and resist the messages out of sheer irritation with you.
In contrast, “stealth” messages are those in which your children are completely unaware that what they are doing is connected with a message, for example, playing sports or doing chores around the house. Let them think they are having fun or just helping you out. You know that your message is sneaking past them into their little minds.
3. Let Your Children Help Shape Your Messages
Your children have an amazing ability to let you know about the messages they might need at any given time or the best ways in which they will be most receptive to a message. It’s up to you to have your “radio tuned to their frequency” so you pick up on those messages. Your children will have experiences, challenges, and reactions every day that should be flags that go up the flag pole alerting you that you have a opportunity to communicate a healthy message to your children. Let your children guide you in how best to send your messages. Listen and watch for situations that can be turned into catchphrases, routines and rituals, and activities that convey the messages you want.
4. Be Simple and Clear
You have to remember that your children don’t think as you do. Whether your children get the messages you send them depends on their level of development. As a result, tailor your messages to fit their current maturity. Young children, because their cognitive, emotional, and language capabilities are not yet fully developed, need messages to be simple and unambiguous. And as your children develop, you can increase the complexity of your messages. At the same time, I believe in the KISS principle. No, not Keep it Simple, Stupid. Instead, Keep it Simple, Smart! So even with children who are more mature, there is nothing like a simple and straightforward message that you know will get through.
The messages that you intend to send may not be the ones that they receive. Because of this sometimes disconnect, make sure that your words, emotions, and actions unambiguously communicate the message you want to convey. Before you send your children a message, step into their shoes and consider what your message might look like to them. Ask yourself whether your means of conveying the message is the best way for them to get the message. Then, after you’ve sent the message, see if they seem to get it. If they do, pat yourself on the back. If not, figure out where you went wrong and recalibrate your message until they finally do get it.
5. Be Active and Relentless
Sending positive messages to your children through your words can be a useful way to educate them about healthy values, attitudes, and behavior. But talk can be confusing especially if you’re sending a bigger message of “do as I say, not as I do.” The most powerful way to convey positive messages to your children is through action, both yours and theirs. If you want your children to really get the messages you communicate to them, behave in accordance with those messages. And, even more powerfully, if you can get your children to act in ways that are consistent with your messages, you know you’ve got them.
Sending healthy messages to your children is also not a part-time, “I’ll do it when I feel like it” sort of thing. The reality is that your children are being bombarded by messages from other sources, namely popular culture, that are truly unhealthy. You can’t just play defense because your messages will be overwhelmed and lost in the onslaught. You must go on the offensive and do some bombarding of your own, but with positive messages, of course. The best way to counter the harmful messages from popular culture is to surround your children with a world of beneficial messages. The more conduits through which you can send messages to your children, for example, through words, emotions, actions, rituals, routines, activities, and other people, the greater the likelihood they will ignore the detrimental messages and get and make their own the life-affirming messages you want them to get.
Note: This post is excerpted from my latest parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You.