Years ago, before we had children of our own, my husband and I went out to eat with my brother and his family. When our food was served, my nephew, who was about 5 years old at the time, looked at his burger and tried to interrupt the conversation that was going on among the adults around the table. When he was unable to get our attention, he got up, walked around the table to the server, and pulled on her skirt. "Excuse me," he said. "There's no cheese on my cheeseburger."
My brother and sister-in-law were less than pleased that their son had a) gotten out of his seat and b) yanked on the server's skirt, but I was amazed. In my eyes, this young child had just done the most incredible thing. He saw a problem, and he took it upon himself to seek a solution in a very rational, mature way. On the ride home, my husband and I talked about this and swore that when we had kids they would know how to ask for what they want and get it. And we've held ourselves to this over the years. "There's no cheese on my cheeseburger" has become one of our parenting catchphrases when dealing with communication issues.
For the first couple years of a child's life, parents eagerly await the time when he is able to communicate using actual words and sentences. But when the words finally do come, we might not appreciate them as much as we thought we would -- especially if they are loud, sassy, or just plain mean. Beyond the initial hurdle of learning to talk, our children need to learn how to communicate.
One of the most important lessons our children learn in their toddler and pre-school years is use your words. Whining and grunting are no longer acceptable. Kicking, hitting, and yelling -- which were barely tolerable in the toddler years -- are not an option for pre-schoolers. If our children are angry, sad, scared, tired, hungry, or even bursting with happiness, it is important for them to be able to express these things verbally. A 4-year-old who can say, "Stop it! That makes me mad!" when a friend pushes him is going to have a far better outcome than one who pouts and walks away or one who responds physically. There are so many situations when "using your words" will save a child from heartache and trouble. You need to get to a restroom? Billy stole your cookie? You can't find your shoes? Use your words.
In order for my children to truly learn this, I needed to model better behavior (no more yelling and gesturing at bad drivers) and reinforce it by acknowledging and validating the feelings they expressed. As my children learned to express their feelings and needs more clearly, they also learned to respond to others. A pre-schooler can comfort a friend who is sad that it's time to go home or high-five a friend who just kicked a goal in soccer. These are moments that make a parent's heart burst with pride.
A big part of responding to others is listening. This is a skill that many children continue to re-learn far beyond the pre-school years. Mainly, we want our children to listen to us -- because we have so many Important Things to tell them. Pick up your toys! Eat your beans! Time for bed! But these are not the only times we should be concerned with listening. When you sit and have a conversation with your child, is she listening to you and truly engaging in the conversation? And are you listening to her? Or are the two of you having parallel conversations and not really connecting at all?
Teaching communication can be a lot of work, and it sometimes requires us to re-learn a few things ourselves, but the payoff is enormous. It can mean the difference between a cheeseburger and a hamburger or a civil conversation and a punch in the nose.
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