Cincinnati Family Magazine

Your # 1 Hometown Family Resource

May 25, 2024

Communication is Key

“Stop, drop and roll if your clothes catch fire.” “Dial 911 for an emergency.” Fire fighters visit preschools to teach young children these sayings. It’s rare to meet a first grader who doesn’t know what to do in an emergency — the directions are so clear a child can easily remember what to do.

Not all our directions are as clear as a fire fighter’s. Children want to see us smile proudly at them, but it is hard to be “good” if they aren’t sure what “good” is.

Phrase Instructions Carefully

For example, Bryan is standing in the middle of his day-care center sobbing, having an attack of separation anxiety. Kathy, the caregiver, kneels down and quietly says, “Bryan, you need to close your mouth and open your eyes.” He looks up at her and she hands him an interesting toy truck. He sniffs a bit and sits down to examine the truck. What made these directions so effective? Kathy told Bryan exactly what to do. “Be good, Bryan,” would probably not have solved the problem.

Daily children hear directions like: “be careful,” “don’t bother me,” “grow up,” “act your age,” “look out,” “be good,” “share,” “clean up the kitchen,” “pay attention,” “be nice,” and “mind your manners.” These directions are often unclear because they mean different things to different people.

When giving directions, picture what you want your child to do and ask for it. Make it as clear as “stop, drop and roll.” Also, avoid negative phrasing. Reword “Don’ts” and make them “Do’s.”

  • Don’t stand on the chair. = Put your feet on the floor.
  • Don’t color on the wall. = Color on this paper.
  • Don’t go into the street. = Stay on the sidewalk.
  • Don’t hit your sister. = Touch your sister gently.

Even though it sometimes takes a moment to rethink what you want to say, the results make it worth the effort.

Achieving the desired effect

The trouble with unclear directions is that a child doesn’t know what you want so you don’t get it. Today 2-year-old Angie is standing near a heavy door at the day-care center. Worried, I say, “Look out for your fingers!” She looks at me, frowning. Her mother says “Angie, put your hands down at your sides.” She does, and the problem is solved until one of us can move Angie away from the door. Clear up misunderstandings by asking for what you want.

  • Watch your head. = Put your head down.
  • Be careful. = Hold the rail going down the steps.
  • Share. = Give one cookie to your sister.
  • Mind your manners. = Eat with your fork.

Remarks such as “be good,” and “don’t be a crybaby” imply that a child is bad or acts like a baby and hurt the child’s self-esteem. Comments about their poor character make them wonder how anyone could love them. If you ask for specific behavior, a child knows what they need to do to earn your smile.

“Clean up after yourself” is never specific enough for my teenagers. When I say, “Wash, dry and put away everything you use,” they know what I mean.

When I hear myself say, “How many times have I told you…,” I know I have given poor directions. Clear messages work well with everyone, and they are especially useful with children. Picture what you want your child to do and ask for it with a firm, friendly voice. Concentrate on behavior, not character.

When your directions are as easy to follow as “Dial 911,” you have sent a clear message.


We connect with our ears. We want to listen to our kids, not because it is good for them, like vitamins, but because it is good for us to know what is happening in their lives. Be curious. Let them have the floor.

When we habitually engage our children in everyday conversation, it becomes normal for them to share their questions, concerns and ideas. Listening helps us be sensitive and aware parents. Hearing what they think helps us connect with them.

  • Remain quiet while they tell the whole story. When 11-year-old Jessica got in my car and announced, “I hate school. I am never going back,” I launched into a lecture on the importance of education. Had I listened first she would have told me, “Jimmie Bernard is being a bully on the playground beating up on the girls.” By butting in, I solved the wrong problem.
  • Ask questions — they help you understand and help children clarify their thoughts. Look for a cue and ask questions like, “What was your favorite part of the day?” or “Tell me how practice went.” Avoid yes/no questions like, “Did you have fun?” Smile and remember it is a conversation, not an interrogation.
  • Be sympathetic. Take children’s embarrassment seriously. Even if what happened seems funny, adult laughter can hurt their feelings even more. No one does anything dumb on purpose. “I’m so sorry” or “It must have been awful” are much kinder words than a conversation stopper like “I told you so.”
  • Make them comfortable. For some children lack of eye contact makes it easier to say what is on their mind. A good place to listen is in the car. John Platt, author of Life in the Family Zoo, says the rule at his house is that when you go on an errand “always take a kid with you.” A friend of mine always takes one of her boys with her to the laundromat because they have such good conversations while folding clothes. I have a “visiting stool” in the kitchen, so anyone who wants to talk to me when I am cooking has a spot to perch.
  • Listen to things you don’t want to hear. School-aged kids and teenagers try on values and philosophies much the way a preschooler tries on roles when he plays dress up. Be flattered if they trust you enough to try these opinions out on you. I have fond memories of an uncle who was not shocked by my weird 12-year-old ideas. Instead, he would comment “That’s interesting,” and give his ideas without trying to change mine. Our conversations made me think about my position without having to defend myself.
  • You cannot always be a problem solver. Parents’ suggestions are often misconstrued as criticism. When lectured, children many times roll their eyes and say, “Whatever!” A child with a problem doesn’t want a solution, they just want to be heard. When listened to, they are more willing to look at another point of view. Parents can ask, “What ideas do you have for solving that problem?” Children won’t enjoy the triumph of personal success if adults constantly offer solutions.
  • Listen like you mean it. Your children are the stars. Smile and be enthusiastic in your pride in their accomplishments. Laugh together. Whether child, teen or young adult, they like to know you are crazy about them and “there for them” when they need you.

The true fun of parenting is listening with an open heart, showing genuine interest and excitement in your child’s conversation. The ultimate reward for listening is having a child who says, “I can tell my Mom and Dad anything!”

The benefit your childen receive is the comfort of knowing that they have an adult who supports them. Your benefit as a parent is knowing what is going on in your children’s life wherever they are. Every day is a fresh start with children. Just begin connecting with your ears.

Eleanor Wolf is the director of a teen-parent program and has taught and worked with teenagers, their babies and their parents for over 15 years. She has raised two children of her own and is a freelance writer and a professional speaker.

About the Author