I often observe parents as they interact with their children and listen to how they use language and tone of voice. All too often, they “talk down” at their kids, rather than having a conversation with them, and that saddens me.
Think back to a time when somebody talked down at you. Maybe it was your boss, maybe it was your own parents and maybe it was your partner. Not a good feeling, right?
Did you feel any respect? How did you think the other person was perceiving you? Did they treat you as an independent, capable human being or see you only from their own perspective? Were they driven by love or perhaps by fear?
Let’s start with the language.
Closed vs. Open Questions
Many parents ask their kids closed or single-choice questions, like “Did you have a good day today?” “Do you have any homework?” “That was great fun, wasn’t it, honey?” “How about we go shopping first and then you can play?” or “Do you want to use the blue crayon for the sky?”
Closed questions are used to instruct and control, because the little person’s choice is limited to agreement or disagreement with something that is actually a statement. So basically, when you ask your child a closed question, you are telling them your opinion and trying to manipulate them into going along with it (or else).
Over time, closed questions inspire compliance and reduce a world of possibilities to what the parents can imagine or think appropriate for the child. It is very difficult to develop creativity and the ability to think of new ideas without practicing it first and closed questions do not provide any opportunity for creative thinking.
Compare this to asking open questions, like “How was your day?” “What are you going to do this afternoon?” “How did you feel about that?” or “What color do you want for the sky?”
Open questions invite the little person to share feelings, thoughts and desires openly and freely. Because the parent does not indicate a preferred answer, the child is free to explore whatever comes to mind, which can often be surprisingly fresh.
Over time, open questions inspire mutual respect and appreciation and encourage creative thinking and trust. Because the safest period to make mistakes is early childhood, asking kids open questions allows them to make mistakes safely, learn from them and develop their confidence in their ability to grow and evolve from experience.
When talking to their kids, parents often use “terms of endearment”, like “sweetie”, “honey bunny”, “pumpkin” or “darling”. These expressions imply that the child is sweet, cute and precious, which makes them sweeteners. When a parent wants a child to do something, which the child may not want to do, the parent often “sweetens” the request with one of these words.
Moreover, these names lack the child’s identity and imply youth and inexperience. There is no need to remind kids that they may prefer something else as individuals when we really want them to comply. So we omit their name and just remind them we know what is best for them through creative name-calling.
Just to be clear, calling your son or daughter “sweetie” when you just want them to know you love them is great. It becomes something else when you use it to get them to comply with your wishes.
Harsher forms of name-calling are “good”, “bad” and “naughty”, as in “Be a good boy and bring me…” or “Are you naughty or nice?” These identity-level statements can stick to them for life and are incredibly hard to remove without professional help. Kids do not need to earn their worth by doing anything for their parents. They are born good, they are always good and the only thing this name-calling does is make them think badly of themselves.
Respectful vs. Fearful Tone
If you ask toddlers’ parents why they almost sing their words to their children, they may not even know. Is it not the way one talks to a toddler? Well, yes and no.
It is very difficult to write intonation, but try to imagine a mother saying to her 2-year-old son, who is having the time of his life at the playground, “Do you want to go home now?” in the same tone as she would ask him “Do you want to get an ice cream?” on a really hot day, as they pass by his favorite ice cream place.
Parents often use their tone to imply cheerfulness and signal to the child that what they are saying should be perceived as great fun, particularly when they know this will not be the case. In fact, that jolly tone of voice is more theatrical the less likely the child is to agree.
Babies respond better to high-pitched voices and to sing-song intonation than they do to monotone. That is OK. When parents talk to babies, they rarely seek agreement or conformance. They usually express their delight from having the baby and from every tiny gesture the baby has just done (for the first time).
Toddles, on the other hand, are bold explorers with independent and tirelessly curious minds, who often insist on having their own way. Parents’ communication with them is frequently about what the parents want them to be doing (differently). As they grow old, especially when they become teenagers, children’s sense of independent identity grows and parents feel a growing need to control them.
Trying to control another person comes from our fear that the other person might otherwise do something harmful or embarrassing and sometimes, that they will not do the best or perfect thing. This fear comes from seeing the other person or the other person’s actions as reflective of us in some way.
If our little person has ice cream all over her face, what would other parents say about us? If our kids refuse to kiss relatives they dislike or listen to their old-times stories, what will the family think of us? If the neighbor’s boy got an “A” and our son got a “B”, how embarrassed would we be at the next barbecue party next door?
Us. Not them.
In fact, they may not care about their face, because they are too busy enjoying their ice cream. They may not like the way those old relatives feel or look or smell and may be eager to play with their same-age cousins after not seeing them for months. They may not be as good at math as the neighbor’s boy, but much better at sports or drama or playing the flute or painting, so who cares?
We do. So we try to control them with closed questions and sweet-talking and a tone that lets them know they are supposed to be real excited about what we are asking them to do.
And then we wake up one day and wonder how we ended up with a bitter teenager who will do anything to get away from us. “Teenagers are like that”, we will say to make ourselves feel good about it, but we will know better.
How to Talk to Your Kids
This may be difficult if you have little kids, but try it anyway. Sit comfortably somewhere, close your eyes, breathe deeply a couple of times and then imagine your kids at 18. Do this for one child at a time. It may be easiest to start with the oldest and work your way down.
18 is a magical point in time when our kids are officially independent. However, as a parent to a 23-year-old, I can tell you it makes absolutely no difference in how you see your kids. If you ask your parents, they will tell you they still see you are a child at 30, 40 and even 50.
When our kids turn 18, we are no longer responsible for them legally, so we can no longer tell them what to do. They can just get up and leave.
Unless we have treated them with respect all their life, because then, leaving home gains them nothing and loses them a lot. In fact, even if they have to move out, knowing we respect them will make them feel better, do better and call us more often.
So ask yourself “When my 18-year-old looks back at my parenting from when he/she was 3, how will he/she feel? What will he/she think of me?”
Hopefully, when you open your eyes, you will start seeing even your 3-year-old as a grownup in the making, a unique and awesome person, who just happens to be short and inexperienced at the moment, but will grow to be a fine human being with your love and encouragement.
Once you put yourself in this mindset, it should be easy for you to start using open questions, take an interest in your children’s independent opinions and perspectives, call them by their names when you ask them for something and speak to them at eye level, in a respectful tone of voice.