As a parent, I hear myself often pleading with my child to be a first time listener! I get so frustrated when my children don’t listen. I find myself repeatedly asking them to get their shoes on, or to get dressed, or to brush their teeth, to the point where my heart rate and blood pressure are through the roof. And my kids, on the other hand, seem totally unfazed by my jumping up and down and pulling my hair out routine. And so then I pause, and take stock, and wonder if the problem may be less of an issue with my children being first-time listeners, and more of a (gasp!) parenting issue of my own. Perhaps what I’m doing isn't working, as evidenced by the same issue rearing its ugly head time and time again.
So first, I slow down, even in the harried rush of getting ready to go to school in the morning. Instead of hollering across the house at my children to get dressed for the 15th time, I slow down, and take a moment to gently place my hand on my child’s shoulder. This is the second step, where I make an effort to ensure that we are engaged and connected with one another in a meaningful and viable way. This is foundational. Without this, we are not giving either child or parent a fair shot at effective communication. Once the communication gap that often exists between parent and child has been bridged, we optimize the potential for real and successful outcomes in our morning routine, and in every other facet of our lives as well. Instead of increased frustration, we are calmly ensuring actual communication takes place. Now we have turned a heightened and stressful experience into a productive collaboration.
Step three is crucial. This entails a shift in our communication. This should feel Herculean and as though there is a 180 degree shift. Most adults, parents, and teachers give demands or ask questions. Declarative communication is, interestingly, processed very differently in the brain. To communicate declaratively, you can view it almost as simply thinking out loud, or stating what you see. Declaratives often start with “I.” “I see,” “I hear,” and “I wonder” are all examples of declarative statements.
Our stressful and chaotic morning shifts to a calmer one as our shift in communication creates a more productive, shared experience. Instead of yelling, “Get your shoes on!” we might benefit from saying, “It looks like you’re almost completely dressed. I only hope your feet don’t get wet, it’s raining outside.”
Rather than telling our children what to do with a command, we have an opportunity to have our children listen to our thoughts so that they may instead apprentice our minds. When our children begin to think about how to think, we allow our children to develop their own minds, and their own ability to discern. It’s true that our children may choose to reject what it is that we are thinking about out loud. However, by shifting our communication style, we are offering our children self-deployable skills as they become self-advocates in a thoughtful and meaningful way. When we say, “Uh-oh, I hope your feet aren't cold,” we take a moment, and create a pause and some space for our children to think about what that means, how what we are saying pertains to them, and why their feet may end up cold when they go outside in fifty degree weather -- which you may have to let them do.
The mom in one of the families I work with did precisely that with her daughter once. Yes, one time was all it took. She told her daughter, “It doesn't look like your shoes are on,” which was all declarative, just thinking out loud. Declaratives with “I” statements like, “I don't see that your shoes are on” work well too in these situations. In this case, the daughter said, “I don't care! I'm not putting my shoes on!”
Mom responded with another completely declarative statement: “Okay. Well, we're heading to the market and I hope your feet don’t get cold.” The daughter had to think about it and, as is sometimes the case, she rejected her mom's thinking about the need for shoes. But when she went out barefoot into the cold, walking to the car to go to the market, her feet were freezing.
Once at the market, the daughter said, “I want to walk around with you in the store.” Mom said declaratively, “It looks like you can't walk around because you didn't put your shoes on, which was your choice. But as a result of that choice, your feet aren't protected, and they won’t let you walk around in the store barefoot because it’s a health and safety hazard.”
As it turns out in this story, Mom did bring her daughter’s shoes with her to the store, although she certainly did not have to. Either way, whether she had been able to put her shoes on and walk with her mom through the store, or if she couldn’t have because there was no safety net of packed shoes, the daughter learned to put her shoes on when it was time to do so. It was no longer a fight every morning.
Now, Mom might merely look at her daughter’s feet and say, “Uh oh, I hope your feet aren’t cold,” and her daughter would put her shoes on immediately. Problem solved. That’s just one example of Shifting Communication Style.