Communication is the lifeblood of any meaningful, close relationship. The closer the relationship, the more important communication becomes. Effective communication is always found in strong parent-child relationships. In fact, effective communication and family quality are so closely related that what affects one will likely affect the other. Although The Family: A Proclamation to the World is silent on communication, it is clear that every characteristic of strong marriages and families is fostered through open, honest, and loving communication.
We learn from research that parent-child communication influences the development of children. Messages parents send can be broadly defined as support messages and control messages. Support messages include praise, approval, encouragement, physical displays of affection, giving help, listening, and cooperation. Control messages include coercion, giving reasons for compliance, pointing out consequences of a child's behavior, ignoring the child, isolating the child, statements of rejection, and nonverbal acts showing disappointment or coldness.
Supportive messages from parents to children lead to a variety of positive outcomes. Some of these include higher self-esteem, greater adherence to moral standards, compliance with parents' wishes, less aggression and other problem behavior. Fathers' supportive messages foster cognitive development, masculine sex-role identification and academic achievement of sons; mothers' supportive messages foster the cognitive development and feminine sex-role identification of daughters. Other communication-related factors contributing to positive child outcomes include a mother's responsiveness, the discussion and acceptance of feelings, and the reinforcement and modeling of positive social behavior.
Negative control messages such as physical punishment are related to greater aggression in children, and coercion weakens a child's adherence to moral standards. Rejection leads to greater dependency. Positive control messages such as giving reasons and explanations help children develop the social competence they need to be successful.
Since effective communication is vital in successful parent-child relationships, it's essential that we foster the proper attitudes and learn the necessary skills for it to happen.
Here are some ideas for communicating with our children:
Take time to talk. Sometimes parents become so busy that they neglect to take time to visit with their children. Before any of the other skills can work, it's essential that parents and children prioritize talking time. Look for times to talk: while driving in the car or doing chores or projects together, or before bedtime. You might try scheduling regular (say, once a month) one-on-one "talk times" with each child. This is a time to be alone just to talk together about feelings, needs, goals, and concerns. Enjoy a milk shake together while you're talking.
Take time to learn children's views. A great way to build relationships with children is to ask them about their interests, needs, feelings, and opinions. We shouldn't do it like a police officer seeking information. The questions should sound like a friend showing genuine interest in them. For example:
- "How did your school project go?"
- "What was your best experience today?"
- "What did you enjoy most about your visit at Grandpa's?"
- "You seem sad (worried, tired). Will you tell me how you feel?"Parents need to be especially understanding when their child is expressing strong feelings. Imagine your child has just told you about trouble with the school bus driver. To show understanding you could say the following:
- "How did you feel when the bus driver yelled at you?"
- "It must have been very embarrassing for you."
- "I'll bet that made you angry."
Some parents feel that if they show understanding their kids will think that their bad behavior is okay. But showing understanding doesn't mean you agree with their behavior. It shows you care about their feelings. Children need to feel that they are understood first. Once it's clear you understand, then you can look for ways to solve the problem. For example, ask: "What do you need to do to prevent trouble with the bus driver in the future?" If the child feels understood, he or she should be willing to look for solutions: "Would it be better if you sat by different people on the bus?"
Invite cooperation in respectful ways. Parents want their children to be responsible, to cooperate. But sending these messages properly is crucial. Some parents may be Generals, giving orders: Wash your hands. Don't eat with your fingers. Feed the dog. Don't jump on the sofa. Sit up straight. Don't pull the dog's tail. Do your homework. Don't talk with your mouth full. Practice the piano. Brush your teeth. Go to bed. Parents may try even more negative ways to win children's cooperation: Why aren't you out of bed? Can't you get anything right? Do I have to do everything for you? Your room is a filthy mess. Get off the phone.
We may think that children need to be corrected in these ways to help them improve. However, if this is the kind of correction children receive most often, they are more likely to feel inadequate, stupid or bad. There are better ways to encourage the cooperation of children.
Use common courtesies, like you would with friends. Say "please," "thank you," "excuse me," and "you're welcome." Instead of saying, "Can't you leave the dog alone?" say "Please leave the dog alone." Or instead of saying, "Will you move out of the way?" say "Excuse me, I need to get by."
Emphasize do rather than don't. Instead of saying, "Don't slam the door!" say, "Close the door softly, please." Talk to your children with the same amount of kind consideration you expect of others when they speak with you.
Use encouraging words. They communicate love and respect. Try some like these:
- "You're good with your hands."
- "Thanks for helping your sister clean up her room."
- "That was a good idea you had."
- "You're special to me."
- "Will you come with me to the store? I enjoy having you with me."
Parent educators Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, authors of the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, say that parents can invite a spirit of cooperation by using the following five skills:
Describe. Describe what you see or describe the problem. Instead of "You haven't taken that dog out all day. You don't deserve to have a pet," describe: "I see Rover pacing up and down near the door."
Give information. Instead of "Who drank milk and left the bottle standing out?" say "Kids, milk turns sour when it isn't refrigerated."
Say it with a word. Instead of "You promised before we got a dog that you would feed him every day. Now this is the third time I've had to remind you this week" say, "Billy, the dog."
Talk about your feelings. Make no comment about the child's character or personality. Instead of "What's wrong with you? You always leave the screen door open!" say, "It bothers me when the screen door is left open. I don't want flies around our food."
Write a note. Sometimes nothing we say is as effective as the written word. The note below was written on the bathroom mirror by a father who was tired of cleaning his daughter's long hairs from the sink drain: "Help! Hairs in my drain give me a pain. Glug, your stopped up sink." Another note was written by an employed mother who taped it to the TV: "Before you turn this on--think--Have I done my homework? Have I practiced?"
Share negative feelings with care. Sometimes it's necessary to tell our children how some unacceptable behavior is making us feel. An effective way to do this is to use "I-messages." These messages are different from "You messages" when a person blames others for his or her feelings: "You make me so angry!"
An I-message often takes the following form: "When (describe what happens that is a problem) I feel (describe the feeling)." For example, "When the barbecue is left on, I feel angry." "When you say those kinds of word, I feel sad and hurt." "When I see the kitchen floor dirty again, I feel frustrated."
A good I-message lets the child know that what he or she is doing is causing trouble without insulting or blaming. I-messages are also good for letting children know when we're likely to not be our best. We might say, "I'm not feeling my best today. If I seem a bit upset, know that it's nothing you've done."
Sometimes negative feelings become so intense that it becomes very difficult to communicate them in helpful ways. In these cases, we need to stop talking and deal with our feelings first. Simply stopping and taking a break for a while, say ten minutes, might be enough to keep intense emotions from harming a relationship. Other times you may need to be more deliberate in decreasing the intensity of emotions. We can do simple things like counting to ten, walking around the block, cracking a joke; or more involved things such as reading or writing poetry, playing the piano, lifting weights, playing racquetball, or listening to or writing music.
Written by Stephen F. Duncan, Ph.D., CFLE. Professor of Family Life, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University. Portions adapted from Dr. Duncan's article, Communication: Building a Strong Bridge Between You and Your Children , published by Montana State University Extension Service.
- Goddard, H. W. (1994). Communication: Building a strong bridge between you and your children. Auburn, AL: Alabama Cooperative Extension Service.
- Faber, A., & Mazlish, E. (1980). How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk. New York: Avon.
"Let us oft speak kind words to each other,
At home or where'er we may be
Oh, the kind words we give shall in memory live,
And sunshine forever impart.
Let us oft speak kind words to each other;
Kind words are sweet tones of the heart".7
This hymn, Let Us Oft Speak Kind Words, elaborates that we should speak kind words no matter where we are or who we are with. We never know when a kind word will help somebody's day be better. Life is too precious to speak harshly to one another. Perhaps this message is especially important to how we treat children.
Children are precious. Christ ministered unto the children when he came to visit His people in the Americas after His resurrection. "He took their little children, one by one, and blessed them, and prayed unto the Father for them" (3 Nephi 17:21). Angels ministered to these children: "And they saw the heavens open, and they saw angels descending out of heaven and they came down and encircled those little ones about and the angels did minister unto them" (3 Nephi 17:24). Are these children not deserving of our kind words?
"Children are an heritage of the Lord" (Psalms 127:3). They have been entrusted to us. President Gordon B. Hinckley states clearly what we can do to raise our children. The following guidelines will help parents develop attributes to raise their children.5
"Never forget that these little ones are the sons and daughters of God and that yours is a custodial relationship to them, that He was a parent before you were parents and that He has not relinquished His parental rights or interest in these His little ones. Now, love them, take care of them. Fathers, control your tempers, now and in all the years to come. Mothers, control your voices; keep them down. Rear your children in love, in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Take care of your little ones. Welcome them into your homes, and nurture and love them with all of your hearts".5
Parenting is a Christ-like Role. A parent teaches their children to love God by speaking kindly to them. Bishop Robert D. Hales states,
"In many ways earthly parents represent their Heavenly Father in the process of nurturing, loving, caring [for], and teaching children. Children naturally look to their parents to learn of the characteristics of their Heavenly Father. After they come to love, respect, and have confidence in their earthly parents, they often unknowingly develop the same feelings toward their Heavenly Father".1
Parents have amazing influence over how their children learn and feel about God. Speaking kindly to children will help them learn to develop Christ-like attributes and, in turn, speak kind words to others.
Discipline with love. Treat your child with love, even when they did something wrong. President David O. McKay's son tells a story of when he was on a vacation as a boy and wandered off in the morning to the beach without telling his parents where he was going. His parents woke up not knowing where he was. President McKay went searching for him and found him at the nearby beach. Instead of scolding the young boy, all President McKay said was, '"It's beautiful, isn't it?' That was his way, to teach gently and with love".10 Be forgiving. It will be easier for you to speak kindly to each other. "And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you" (Ephesian 4:1-3, 29, 31-32). Don't let the grudges crowd out the love in your heart.
Love at home. Homes benefit when an atmosphere of friendship and acceptance is created. Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy said: "Our needs for friendship are often best met in the home. If our children feel friendship within the family, with each other, and with parents, they will not be desperate for acceptance outside the family".9 Acceptance in the home will help the children feel comfortable to come to the parent when they have a problem. President Gordon B. Hinckley said: "How fortunate, how blessed is the child who feels the affection of his parents. That warmth, that love will bear sweet fruit in the years that follow".4 The child will grow up knowing his parents love him. Keep the channels of communication open by spending time with your children. Elder Robert D. Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said: "Spend individual time with [your] children, letting them choose the activity and the subject of conversation. Block out distractions".2 Develop a good relationship with your children through spending time with them.
Keep anger under control. On speaking kindly to our loved ones, President Harold B. Lee gave Elder D. Hales and his sweetheart some wise counsel at the time of their marriage: "When you raise your voice in anger, the Spirit departs from your home".2 How do we keep anger from getting out of control? President Hinckley has advised us to speak softer to one another. "I hope that the noise of our homes will drop a few decibels, that we will subdue our voices and speak to one another with greater appreciation and respect".6 Try speaking kindly to your children, even if you are angry with them. "A soft answer turneth away wrath" (Proverbs 15:1). Elder Hales continues on to mention that "we must never, out of anger, lock the door of our home or our heart to our children".2
Follow the example of Christ. Marion G. Romney, former 2nd Counselor in 1st Presidency, states "let us, therefore, resolve to control our tongues and by speaking kind words to each other emulate the loving kindness of our Lord".11 Christ always praised the little child. Be patient. Be understanding. Make it your goal to always speak kindly to children. The more you try, the easier it will get. President Charles W. Penrose has given us advice when anger gets in the way:
School thy feelings, O my brother;
Train thy warm impulsive soul;
Do not its emotions smother,
But let wisdom's voice control.8
"I should like to give to every man within the sound of my voice a challenge to lift his thoughts above the filth, to discipline his acts into an example of virtue, to control his words that he speak only that which is uplifting and leads to growth".3 Always speak kind words to children.
Written by Rebekah Olsen, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
- Hales, R. D. (1993, November). How will our children remember us? Ensign 9. Retrieved August 2003.
- Hales, R. D. (1999, May). Strengthening families: Our sacred duty. Ensign 33. Retrieved August 2003.
- Hinckley, G. B. (1975, November). Opposing evil. Ensign 38-39. Retrieved August 2003.
- Hinckley, G. B. (1978, November). "Behold your little ones." Ensign 18. Retrieved August 2003.
- Hinckley, G. B. (1997, July). Excerpts from recent addressed of President Gordon B. Hinckley,Ensign, 72. Retrieved August 2003.
- Hinckley, G. B. (2001, November). "Till we meet again." Ensign, 89. Retrieved August 2003.
- Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (1985). Let us oft speak kind words. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book.
- Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (1985). School thy feelings. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book.
- Jensen, M. K. (1999, May). Friendship: A gospel principle. Ensign, 64-65. Retrieved August 2003.
- McKay, D. L. (1984, August). Remembering Father and Mother, President David O. McKay and Sister Emma Ray Riggs McKay, Ensign 34. Retrieved August 2003.
- Romney, M. G. (1977, August). Speak kind words. Ensign 2. Retrieved August 2003.