Do you want to know how to talk to kids effectively? How to encourage flourishing brain development? How to create a positive emotional environment for them to grow in?

Yea. Me too! ;]

As a fairly new parent to just one child I've definitely not experienced it all as a mother. I'm not really sure that any amount of living or learning will result in the definitive answers to the queries above.

Nevertheless, some of the life experiences, career decisions, & educational choices that I've made have given me eye-opening insight that I think can be very helpful for choosing how to speak to little growing minds!

What follows is a compilation of my favorite random informational gems that relate to conversation with kids. These are things I've learned from working with & studying little ones' brains & development over the past decade.

How to talk to kids...

 

1. Talk to Children often & with Intention

As First Five California says, "Your Words Have Power", & I couldn't agree more. Kids pick up on everything. If you're talking, they're listening & absorbing. So talk to them often & with intention.

You can begin speaking to them in your belly & then as soon as they're born. I remember the specific moment with Vincenzo when I finally came out of the "first week fog" & put this to use. I had to make an effort to speak my thoughts & actions; I wasn't used to narrating my day. I was folding laundry & began singing about the different colors of my fourth-trimester leggings.

It may sound silly, but it's a special memory that marks the beginning of our social relationship & the first building blocks of his life-long education.

As your baby becomes a toddler {& beyond} the conversations change, but should never be valued less than they are during infancy. It's very easy to become annoyed with the zillion questions that a toddler asks or buttons that they push, but questions are the auditory process of their brains making connections, & pushing buttons is part of self discovery and learning boundaries.

Children are meant to be seen AND heard AND spoken to. Literally everything they learn in the first few years is a result of what you teach them, & teaching starts with talking {& listening}. So let's all make a commitment to, above all else on this list, talk to our tiny friends with love & intention!

2. Relate, Don't Debate

This is a variation of one of my favorite lessons from "The Whole-Brain Child" {which I HIGHLY recommend to all parents, grandparents, & parents-to-be!}. It's a lot more complicated than I'll outline in this post, but the basics of it are that children are not able to control the emotional & logical balance in their brains. Thus they need to be empathized with before spoken to logically.

Have you ever been so angry that you "see red"? Or so sad that you can't stop the tears? Although temperament plays a role, children have the tendency to get to those emotionally flooded places very quickly & may not yet have the tools to get out.

Attempting to speak logically to them during a situation in which they seem to be acting illogically usually ends in frustration for the parents & unresolved emotion for the child. The younger the child, the less equipped to deal with the emotional flood {usually}.

Toddlers are also naturally egocentric for varying amounts of time into early childhood. Between the lack of emotional control & ego-centrism it isn't difficult to see why we need to lead with empathy when discussing difficult situations with toddlers & kids.

Lets lay out a situation as an example. Your 2.5 year old really wants to play with his toys but you have an appointment to get to. You encourage him to clean up & go but he protests & begins to cry because he wants to play. You have two optional reactions:

1. Explain to him that you need to leave because you have an appointment & you can't be late, "people are waiting for us", as you throw his toys in the bin & drag him out the door screaming.

or

2. Get down, eye to eye with him, give him a hug & tell him you understand that it's difficult to stop doing something that you really like to do. "I know it's hard. I would be sad too". Once he's a bit more calm---which shouldn't take long if genuine empathy is involved {& there's not a crazy sugar crash or long-missed nap situation}---you can redirect to a new event in the direction of the car or introduce logic if the child is older.

Easier said than done, I know, but the more you "practice" this style of speaking, the more normal it will become!

3. Discuss Memories Often

I grew up having the worst memory. I don't recall much before the age of six, & if it weren't for my one of my best friends {who has the memory of an elephant} I would've forgotten my entire high school experience.

The good news is that the memory can be strengthened through "exercise" & all you have to do to exercise the memory is remember!

The more pictures & videos you show & details you discuss about events from the past, the stronger your child's memory will be. There are all sorts of brain mechanics at play when retrieving memory & it usually causes a spiral of association-driven stories that are fun to listen to, & fun to watch being remembered.

Even though Chenz is just over a year & a half, we've been discussing memory for months now. I often ask who we visited the day before or what we did last week {went swimming, went to the Disneyland} & he's almost always able to give a thoughtful answer.

There's nothing better than looking into a child's eyes & seeing their brain make connections. It's truly amazing.

4. Be open with them about your hardships & conflict resolution

This is a tough one for a lot of people...& a tricky line to walk. It has to be done right, but when it is I believe it's one of the greatest gifts you can give your child.

In my experience, most families show either too much {unresolved} conflict or none at all.

Too much conflict {screaming, crying, arguing} in the home without a purposeful & positive end result may cause the child to be less confident, more dependent, distrusting, angry, & fearful.

Little to no conflict seen in the home may leave the child unprepared to deal with it in their own lives. They are sometimes less expressive, disconnected from their emotions, overly independent, & have a harder time compromising with others.

The key factors here are explaining the situation to the child & sharing the process of resolution.

There are, of course, things that are best kept behind closed doors & away from little ears. Especially if the conversation is going in a nasty & spiteful direction. That being said, even very painful & deep challenges can be worked through with the children present as long as it's done so in a super constructive manner.

The level of intensity {as in pain or suffering rather than loudness of voice} of argument or challenge that you decide to solve/heal through with your children is going to differ from family to family & situation to situation.

For now, our family chooses to have Vincenzo present for everything. We are not explosive arguers & although we can be speaking on extremely painful or angering topics in front of him, we hardly raise our voices. It took us a long time to get to the place of communication that we are in now; many hours of self-work, on-going weekly couples therapy, & a ton of intention. Constructive conflict resolution is not something that we take lightly.

Now that he is older, we try to explain why we are sad or upset in terms that he understands. We identify where the feeling comes from & the sensation it brings. We explain that it's ok to feel happy/sad/disappointed/frustrated, & we allow him to witness our problem-solving conversations.

Most of the time he's not actually paying attention, but I know he feels the energy & I still want to address it. We are also extremely aware of his personal emotional & energetic well-being & are very respectful & encouraging of the healing that he is doing from his life experiences since the womb & beyond. {yea, yea I'm a crunchy mama, but science proves that babies feel & are effected by everything they experience from conception forward}

Each family will make a decision on this topic that is right for them. I just want to throw out the idea it may be beneficial to deal with hardships & resolve conflict with your little ones present.

P.S. It's ok to to let your kids see you cry.

5. be honest & keep your word

You are your child's truth.

I cannot emphasize enough just how much they look up to you. Heck, they think they ARE you until early toddler-hood.

When I was little my dad thought it was hilarious to mess with us kids. He'd joke around with silly things that he thought were harmless, but at the time they rocked my world.

I remember sitting in line at a drive through {I know, I know...} with my brother & dad. I was just about 8 years old & my parents had bought a new house that we hadn't yet moved into. We were up at the payment window & my dad couldn't find his wallet, "I lost my money! I guess we're going to be homeless, we can't buy a house without my wallet".

I. Lost. It. My dad just told me that we weren't going to have a house. Of course I believed him!

In that moment he taught me that wallets hold all of your money & that if it's gone you lose everything.

By the time he tried to tell me he was kidding I was already flooded with emotion & blocked off to logic.

I will admit that temperament & personality play a role here as well. I'm not even sure if my brother remembers that story. But I do! Very clearly.

My dad had good intentions. He didn't understand the naivete of my brain & level of unadulterated trust that I had in what he taught me. Nevertheless these moments profoundly effected me.

To this day I cringe when I hear a parent tell a blatant lie to their children just for their own entertainment. I just wanna shake em'!

While it may seem that I have a personal vendetta against parents filling their children's brains with pointless dishonesty ;] , it is definitely counter-productive to proper brain development & socialization.

Being honest with your kids about how the world works & the truthful consequences of their actions teaches them to trust that world {& you}.

It goes hand in hand with keeping your word.

If you say you're going to take them somewhere at a certain time, go at that time. If your threatening to take their toy away if they don't listen, take it away when they ignore you.

Children's brains, emotions, & identity are extremely malleable & I truly feel that it is a parents responsibility to respect that child's trust in them.

Examples of things to think twice about:

  • Promising a treat or surprise to a child just to get them to comply {with no intention of delivering}
  • Instilling fear by threatening unrealistic consequences {like the boogie man coming if they don't brush their teeth}
  • A fabricated story about how something works {even the stork bringing babies}

If we want children to be honest, we need to be honest. If we want them to trust we need to be trustworthy.

6. Value their accomplishments, not their qualities

Do you ever watch your child do something & think to yourself, "that kid is genius!" followed by a verbal acknowledgment of their smarts? "You are so smart my sweet girl!"

Yea, me too. We all think our kids are the bee's knees & sometimes it's hard not to express it. A recent study found, however, that broad statements about a child's intelligence may actually be doing them intellectual harm.

Children that are told blanket statements about their overall intelligence may hold themselves to an unreachable standard & value themselves based off of how well they reach those goals. This means that a failure to reach a certain expectation may lead to a lower feeling of self-worth. Even more, the study found that children that were told they were "smart" were less likely to attempt mentally challenging activities in fear that they would fail the title.

The solution? It's not to avoid praise, but to hold a higher value on the actual activity accomplished & skills used.

Here are some examples:

  • "You did a great job remembering the words on your spelling test. I'm proud of you for putting so much time into it" {child}
  • "Thank you for listening when I asked you to bring the bowl over." {toddler}
  • "You looked at mommy's face when she was talking to you! That makes me happy!" {newborn}

Goal: be specific with what they did & why it was good.

7. Listen to & Respect their feelings

We all have basic human needs. One of them is to be heard.

Have you ever been in a social situation where you are continuously being talked over? It's not fun.

What about when someone dismisses how you feel? "Oh yea, that sucks but I've been through much worse. You're fine."

Ugh. Not pleasant!

Our children are mini humans with the same basics needs. They need to be heard & their feelings respected.

Have you ever caught yourself telling your child how they feel? "You're fine. You barley fell, there's no scrape, get up & move on".

I know I've said something similar. In fact "You're ok." was an extremely common phrase around here for a while.

It wasn't until I read an article, which uses a great & funny example about speaking like a hostage negotiator, that I realized just how often I said it!

A simple change of a few words makes all the difference. I now ask "Are you ok?" rather than telling him that he is. He feels heard & moves on much more quickly from a situation than he did when I brushed him off.

It's not about "babying" the child. In fact it's quite the opposite. It's a practice to treat them more like a respected adult while keeping in mind their developmental inability to control the delicate balance of emotions & logic.

So that's all {for now}!

As I learn & grow I will continue to share.

At the end of the day you only have to remember one thing:

Treat others like you want to be treated. Even, & especially your kids.

to conversations with kiddos,

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