How to Talk with Kids
A major part of discipline is learning how to talk to kids so they will listen. The way you talk to your child teaches him how to talk to others. Here are some talking tips we have learned with our children:
1. Connect Before You Direct
Before giving your child directions, squat to your child’s eye level and engage your child in eye-to-eye contact to get his attention. Teach him how to focus: “Mary, I need your eyes.” “Billy, I need your ears.” Offer the same body language when listening to the child. Be sure not to make your eye contact so intense that your child perceives it as controlling rather than connecting.
2. Address the Child
Open your request with the child’s name, “Lauren, will you please…”
3. Stay Brief
We use the one-sentence rule: Put the main directive in the opening sentence. The longer you ramble, the more likely your child is to become parent-deaf. Too much talking is a very common mistake when dialoguing about an issue. It gives the child the feeling that you’re not quite sure what it is you want to say. If she can keep you talking she can get you sidetracked.
4. Stay Simple
Use short sentences with one-syllable words. Listen to how kids communicate with each other and take note. When your child shows that glazed, disinterested look, you are no longer being understood.
5. Ask Your Child to Repeat the Request Back to You
If he can’t, it’s too long or too complicated.
6. Make an Offer the Child Can’t Refuse
You can reason with a two or three-year-old, especially to avoid power struggles. “Get dressed so you can go outside and play.” Offer a reason for your request that is to the child’s advantage, and one that is difficult to refuse. This gives her a reason to move out of her power position and do what you want her to do.
7. Be Positive
Instead of “no running,” try: “Inside we walk, outside you may run.”
8. Begin your Directives with “I want.”
Instead of “Get down,” say “I want you to get down.” Instead of “Let Becky have a turn,” say “I want you to let Becky have a turn now.” This works well with children who want to please but don’t like being ordered. By saying “I want,” you give a reason for compliance rather than just an order.
“When you get your teeth brushed, then we’ll begin the story.” “When your work is finished, then you can watch go outside and play.” “When,” which implies that you expect obedience, works better than “if,” which suggests that the child has a choice when you don’t mean to give him one.
10. Legs First, Mouth Second
Instead of hollering, “Put away your toys, it’s time for dinner!!” Walk into the room where your child is playing, quietly, but firmly tell them it’s almost dinnertime, then join in with your child’s interests for a few minutes. Going to your child conveys you’re serious about your request; otherwise children interpret this as a mere preference.
11. Give Choices
“Do you want to put your pajamas on or brush your teeth first?” “Red shirt or blue one?”
12. Speak Developmentally Correctly
The younger the child, the shorter and simpler your directives should be. Consider your child’s level of understanding. For example, a common error parents make is asking a three-year- old, “Why did you do that?” Most adults can’t always answer that question about their behavior. Try instead, “Let’s talk about what you did.”
13. Speak Socially Correct
Even a two-year-old can learn “please.” Expect your child to be polite. Children shouldn’t feel manners are optional. Speak to your children the way you want them to speak to you.
14. Speak Psychologically Correct
Threats and judgmental openers are likely to put the child on the defensive. “You” messages make a child clam up. “I” messages are non-accusing. Instead of “You’d better do this…” or “You must…,” try “I would like….” or “I am so pleased when you…” Instead of “You need to clear the table,” say “I need you to clear the table.” Don’t ask a leading question when a negative answer is not an option. “Will you please pick up your coat?” Just say, “Pick up your coat, please.”
15. Write It
Reminders can evolve into nagging so easily, especially for preteens who may not respond to being told to do things over and over. Without saying a word you can communicate anything you need said. Talk with a pad and pencil. Leave humorous notes for your child. Then sit back and watch it happen.
16. Talk the Child Down
The louder your child yells, the softer you respond. Let your child ventilate while you interject timely comments: “I understand” or “Can I help?” Sometimes just having a caring listener available will wind down the tantrum. If you come in at his level, you have two tantrums to deal with. Be the adult for him.
17. Settle the Listener
Before giving your directive, restore emotional equilibrium, otherwise you are wasting your time. Nothing sinks in when a child is an emotional wreck.
18. Replay Your Message
Toddlers need to be told a thousand times. Children under two have difficulty internalizing your directives. Most three- year-olds begin to internalize directives so that what you ask begins to sink in. Do less and less repeating as your child gets older. Preteens regard repetition as nagging.
19. Let Your Child Complete the Thought
Instead of “Don’t leave your mess piled up,” try: “Matthew, think of where you want to store your soccer stuff.” Letting the child fill in the blanks is more likely to create a lasting lesson.
20. Use Rhyme Rules
“If you hit, you must sit.” Get your child to repeat them.
21. Give Likable Alternatives
“You can’t go by yourself to the park; but you can play in the neighbor’s yard.”
22. Give Advance Notice
“We are leaving soon. Say bye-bye to the toys, bye-bye to the girls…”
23. Open Up a Closed Child
Carefully chosen phrases open up closed little minds and mouths. Stick to topics that you know your child gets excited about. Ask questions that require more than a yes or no. Stick to specifics. Instead of “Did you have a good day at school today?” try “What is the most fun thing you did today?”
24. Use “When You…I Feel…Because…”
“When you run away from mommy in the store I feel worried because you might get lost.”
25. Close the Discussion
If a matter is really closed to discussion, say so. “I’m not changing my mind about this. Sorry.” You’ll save wear and tear on both you and your child. Reserve your “I mean business” tone of voice for when you do.
Dr. Sears, or Dr. Bill as his “little patients” call him, has been advising busy parents on how to raise healthier families for over 40 years. He received his medical training at Harvard Medical School’s Children’s Hospital in Boston and The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, the world’s largest children’s hospital, where he was associate ward chief of the newborn intensive care unit before serving as the chief of pediatrics at Toronto Western Hospital, a teaching hospital of the University of Toronto. He has served as a professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto, University of South Carolina, University of Southern California School of Medicine, and University of California: Irvine. As a father of 8 children, he coached Little League sports for 20 years, and together with his wife Martha has written more than 40 best-selling books and countless articles on nutrition, parenting, and healthy aging. He serves as a health consultant for magazines, TV, radio and other media, and his AskDrSears.com website is one of the most popular health and parenting sites. Dr. Sears has appeared on over 100 television programs, including 20/20, Good Morning America, Oprah, Today, The View, and Dr. Phil, and was featured on the cover of TIME Magazine in May 2012. He is noted for his science-made-simple-and-fun approach to family health.