Communicating with Children: What You Say Doesn’t Matter

Communicating with Children: What You Say Doesn’t Matter

Whether you're parenting a two year-old or a 17 year-old, you know that communication can be one of the hardest parts of life. Sometimes, no matter how clearly or concisely you make a point - no matter how eloquently you argue your position - the child just simply does the opposite. "What will it take for you to listen to me!?" you say, while pulling at your hair. "What do I need to say?!?"

The truth is simple: in regards to listening, it doesn't matter at all what you say. There are twenty different things that you might say that could result in the same behavior from your child. No, what you say doesn't matter - it's what the child hears. Communication is tricky like that - it's so much more than the words that are used. Depending on the context, "Go clean up your room," could very well be interpreted as, "You've done a terrible thing, Johnny," "Your grandparents are coming over," "It's that time of week again," or even, however unlikely, "Go clean up your room."

So if it's not primarily what you say, how do you best influence your kids? How do you help your children understand just what you're trying to share? Here are three components to communication clarity that are good to focus on in parenting:


Having a strong, consistent relationship with your children will help improve communication perhaps more than anything else. When your kids know who you are and what you stand for, they'll be much more consistent in interpreting your words and requests for what they truly are, instead of skewing them or purposefully ignoring them.

Our children need to know our hearts. As our kids grow and our relationship with them deepens, they'll better be able to understand what we're asking and expecting, and will better listen and follow. The old adage applies, and can be modified: Rules without relationship results in rebellion, and communication without relationship creates confusion.


Simply put, our children need to respect what we're saying and not feel they have the leeway to purposefully misinterpret what we've tried to communicate. There is always going to be accidental misunderstandings, but an intentional disregard for what we've asked? There can't be room for this.

We parent out of confidence in the role God has given us, and assurance in our authority. Neither of these lend themselves to fear - in short, we can't be afraid of our kids. If we've asked them to do something and they're simply ignoring it, there needs to be immediate consequences. Consistency in this area will improve communication.


But finally, there are many situations which just require repeating what we've said in order to get the point across. And repeating again. And again.

Parenting requires so much wisdom, and one of those gray areas is always in the realm of communication. "Did my child understand what I said and is ignoring it, or did she misinterpret or forget or not grasp it?" This is a huge question - and an important one. The answer will inform how we respond.

A general rule of thumb is that the more disruptive a request, the more likely a child will ignore or disobey. So saying, "You can't watch TV anymore ever and instead can only eat lima beans," will be more likely disobeyed or re-interpreted (probably correctly) than, "Before you watch TV, you need to pick up your dirty underwear."

If we say something that is light or minor - even something like, "It's time to get ready for school," and then return 10 minutes later to find no movement to listen, we'll need to ask, "Is he purposefully disobeying, or just being a kid?" Likely, the answer is the latter. If so, then repeat. "Com'mon Jimmy! I said it's time to get ready. Say it with me: 'It's. time. to. get. ready.' Good!" If it's the former - outright rebellion - well, then, refer to "Respect."

Communication with kids is never easy - they have completely different priorities and focuses. But that doesn't mean it needs to be impossible. The more we remember that it's not what we say that matters but rather what they hear, the more we'll be able to effectively communicate and cut down on frustration for both us and for them.

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