It’s human nature that people who don’t like what they hear will somehow turn it around so that it’s not what you originally meant. And if it’s human nature that affects adults, you can be sure that it’s operative with the kids. So I take great pains to be frank with them, almost to the point of bluntness.
Reasons For Frankness
Children suffer from multiple listening ailments:
- SAST (Short Attention Span Theatre). They will not focus on what you say as well as most adults.
- Doanlike’s Syndrome. If they doan like what they hear, they’ll try to minimize it or manuever around it.
- Doanget’s Syndrome. They sometimes just doan get what you’re saying.
And the parents suffer too.
- SES (Self Esteem Syndrome). Some are concerned that their child not hear something unpleasant lest that child’s self-esteem be damaged.
Fortunately, children are about as resilient as weeds.
Frankness Is Concrete, Not Rude
Most children are very concrete in their thinking and haven’t yet developed abstract thinking skills; their listening skills are also not up to speed. For example, I caught one of my children in a major lie and consequently told that child – then in second grade – to write I will not tell a lie, 110 times. Within a minute, the child was out of the room playing and when I interceded, showed me the paper. Correctly written – from a kid’s point of view. The paper simply said I will not tell a lie 110 times.
And after a quiet discussion, the child wrote the correct phrase another 109 times. And I learned a lesson.
Many people equate frankness with rudeness. But handled properly with kids, you can be very clear without being rude. Being frank means that you are as clear as possible with the kid, even asking them to repeat back to you what you said. Being frank also means that you use language that clearly identifies a behavior or comment with a specific label. This is where many trip up since they apply the label to the kid and not the action.
For example, L’il Fred sees someone sitting down and thinks it would be cool to watch them land their scrawny butt on the floor. So L’il Fred removes the chair and Gertrude lands both her butt and her head on the floor – along with a pint of blood. Some parents will tell Fred that he’s a bad kid for what he did. Repeated enough times, Fred hears "bad kid" but tunes out the remainder of the phrase until he’s convinced himself that he really is a bad kid.
A better way to talk to Fred? You can ask him why did you do that? but honestly, Fred was in the moment and awaiting the sound of a bony butt on the concrete floor. He was probably even wondering whether it would sound like so many dice landing on a Candyland Board. After you correct Fred in whatever manner is best for Fred, talk to him but distinguish between him and the action. Fred, you’re a really smart guy, but that was a dumb/bad thing to do. Fred will probably be embarrassed and over time, will learn that he is a smart guy capable of making a good decision – or stopping a bad one – with some thought.
Frankness Uses Appropriate Language
Also feel free to be clear and specific with your language. Don’t be afraid to use labels that have a moral component. Some actions aren’t only stupid, they are bad and they are wrong. And if the child doesn’t hear those labels attached to the behavior, they won’t get the moral aspect of their behavior. If you spend your time using phrases like stupid and dumb, then the child will only learn that their actions serve to reflect on their image and not whether those actions are good or right in and of themselves.
Avoid phrases that equivocate. Not nice is a particular dislike of mine. If L’il Fred dropped Gertrude on her bony butt, it was bad. If L’il Fred used the dinner fork for his salad or farted at the table, it wasn’t nice. There’s a distinct difference between the two and the kids won’t learn it if they don’t hear it.
Frankness Specifies Outcomes
Being concrete, kids don’t get open-ended and vague threats of consequences in case of misbehavior. In the moment, I’ve also used vague warnings of impending apocalypse should something occur but I try hard to assure that the child is aware of potential consequences. I’ve found with mine that the resulting ill-will of discipline is lessened if they had a clue of what was coming. The seriousness of an action is reflected in the consequences that adults assign to that action and a child who screws up is less likely to feel wronged if they understood the magnitude of the action.
- Be plain in your language and don’t be afraid to ask them to repeat what you’ve said back to you.
- Be sure to verbally distinguish between the child and the action when using descriptive phrases or words.
- Be sure to use words that convey a moral component to the action. Regardless of your religious belief, your home is the principal place for the kid to learn basic tenets of morality.
- Don’t equivocate in the language. Use clear, strong words that are unmistakeable to a young mind.
- When you discuss consequences should something occur, be clear, direct and specific as possible.
And since we’re human, we’re going to make mistakes. I’ve made plenty and will continue to do so. But don’t let a fear of erring with the kid keep you from communicating clearly. The more clear that you are, the less likely the mistake.