Read this amazing quote from renowned family therapist Virginia Satir about communication: “Whatever you say to me comes out of you and has very little to do with me.” With that perspective in mind, how are we, as parents, supposed to make the messages we send to our children relevant, meaningful, and work toward their best interest?
What nearly every parent wants is to establish and nurture a deep relationship with their offspring that extends generationally into what becomes their legacy. What follows are 10 legacy-building guidelines that you can begin to incorporate into your thinking right now.
1. People (including children!) respond to their experience, not to reality.
When you want to get an idea across to your child, you need to get behind their eyes and see the world the way they do. Craft a message that at first fits within then expands their perception of reality. It’s like bitter medicine: most of us would never benefit from it if the pharmacist did not hide it in a better-tasting delivery system.
Regarding training children, I had a colleague whose son was still sucking his thumb at the age of three. The parents had bribed, coerced, punished, lectured and ignored. What they had not done was change the meaning of the thumb sucking inside the mind of this child. I told them to actually encourage the lad to suck his thumb, while reminding him that since he was still three he could suck it all he wanted and did not have to stop until he was a “big boy.” Being viewed as a big boy was something the child wanted. In less than a week the thumb sucking stopped.
2. Behind every behavior there is a positive intention.
This is a challenging idea because it is easy to see negative motivations and we are often rewarded for doing so. Yet people do things because they want something. You could argue that some behavior is driven to avoid something unpleasant, but if you look deeper, what motivates that action is still something positive. For example, most people would agree that yelling at someone is not a positive behavior. However, what makes someone yell is positive at the deepest levels. Before you read on, think back to a time when you yelled at someone. Ask yourself, “What was I wanting to get for myself through my yelling?” Common answers are: to be heard, to be safe, to get my point across, and so on. All of those, by the way, are positive intentions.
Before assigning a negative reason for a behavior that your son or daughter is doing, drill down into the positive causes by asking yourself, “What are they really wanting through doing that?” “What is my child trying to get for themselves?” Once you can see that your child is running around the house creating havoc because he’s exhausted and is fighting sleep, you have a choice. Are you going to respond to the surface behavior (the chaos he’s creating), or the deeper need (he needs to go to bed)?
3. Anything can be accomplished when the task is broken down into small enough chunks.
You’ve heard the quote, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Everyone has a threshold for how much information they can take in at one time. The range can vary according to age, health, culture, learning context, and even mental state. As you get to know your child, discover their threshold for learning in various contexts and match that as you are teaching them.
I was tutoring a teenager struggling with memorizing information. The one area he was most motivated to work on was phone numbers (especially those connected to the opposite sex). I noticed that he regularly coupled pieces of information together. It seemed that chunks of two made sense to him. But when it came to phone numbers, the normal chunking of three, then three more numbers, followed by a cluster of four really threw him off. After the initial three numbers, he just quit listening. So I taught him to hear a phone number and then to visualize it in strings of two; like magic he remembered the phone number the first time he heard it!
4. There is no such thing as failure, only feedback.
Making mistakes is part of growing up. It’s when immaturity around failure develops that communication breaks down between parent and child. The idea that failure is feedback is sharpened by Dr. Charles Garfield of NASA, “You need a continuing stream of feedback whenever you are really stretching. The Apollo moon flight was off-course 90 percent of the time between here and the moon, but Apollo had feedback mechanisms that allowed it to make rapid course corrections.” As a parent, your job is not to hound the kid about his or her mistakes. Rather, you need to be a trusted “feedback mechanism” that helps and guides the youngster back on track.
5. Every behavior is useful in some context.
This is another tip that people can easily prove wrong. You could rightly argue that murder is an awful behavior. However, an important difference between murder and self-preservation is the reason behind the action itself. To illustrate, when my nephew was two, he started biting people. So I began teaching him that teeth are great, that we really need our mouths, and that biting was certainly OK, but it needed to be done in the right way. I told him, “You can bite steak or a popsicle, but you cannot bite people.” I then reinforced the learning with something tasty to bite and very soon he traded biting his family and friends for snacking on healthy foods and the occasional treat. The child’s job is to try out anything and everything in order to learn. The parents’ job is to put all of that behavior in useful contexts that will help the child become successful.
6. The messenger never rests until the message is delivered.
“Mommy. MOMMY! Mommy mommy mommy!” Heard that before? Kids are relentless and unabashed communicators. If you do not quickly get the message they are sending you they will throw themselves on the floor, scream as they hurl themselves in circles, and give a tantrum that would make Linda Blair blush. The truth is, what they wanted to communicate began as a non-verbal message well before you needed to call an exorcist. Parents are distracted because we are tired, stressed, and overburdened with responsibilities. Yet, if we start to pay attention to our children’s needs early on, we will save ourselves the embarrassment that often results because we are so busy tuning our children out, and we will get deeper rapport with our children because they will learn to trust that we have their best interests in mind.
7. The meaning of your communication is the response you get.
Most parents assume that because their mouths are moving in the general direction of their kids that communication has taken place. In simple terms, yes, you have spoken to your child, but watch their response. Is that the behavior or attitude you wanted? Don’t measure what you say to your child against what you mean. Measure it against how they receive it and what they do with it.
If you have scolded your child for making a poor grade by telling them, “What kind of grade is this? You can do better!” and deep down you really meant for them to hear how much you care about their future, but they say back to you, “You’re never happy with what I do,” then take their response as the meaning of your communication; not what you meant. Your concern for their future success was lost in the way you scolded them. You cannot undo that or pretend that you didn’t say it, but you can apologize for communicating the wrong message and try again.
8. Choice is better than no choice.
No one really enjoys being told what to do and children want to have some independence and influence over their lives. The difficulty is that the younger a person is the less life experience they have had through which to gain wisdom about making choices. Yet the successful parent will build on their child’s desire for choice instead of making the child feel small by their limited world view.
Bedtime and chores are great examples of how to begin building choice into your expectations. Instead of sending your little one to bed crying and protesting, ask them, “Would you like to walk or fly to bed?” Or, “Do you want to brush your teeth before I read you a story, or after?” “The dishes need to be done. Would you like to listen to music or watch a show on the iPad while you do them?” In each case you are giving the illusion of choice, which softens the perception that a child is being made to do something against their will.
9. People always make the best choice available to them at the time.
This is not to say that our kids’ choices are great all the time. It means that when the time comes for a child to choose behavior X over behavior Y, the child’s choice will reflect their perception of their resources in that situation. In other words, if they would have known better, they would have chosen better. If a child is struggling with making good choices in a given context, it is an indication that they need some strategies to access their resources better, faster, and more reliably.
10. If what you are doing isn’t working, do anything else.
You want your twelve-year-old to clean his room. You think you have sufficiently motivated him to “clean up” because you’ve yelled the command from your easy chair. In the past you have even lectured him about the benefits of keeping a clean room. Yet he struggles to do it. You have to tell him each and every time to clean the room. What is happening? Your son has not internalized the value of keeping his room clean and you are repeating a program that is meaningless in his experience (see tip #1). Instead of repeating this useless loop, put your thinking cap on and try another approach. Do not give up on your ability to be creative, nor on your child’s natural desire to make you proud.
For sure our kids will carry on the best and the worst of who we are for generations to come. How you communicate with them now will have lasting effects that will become your legacy. Incorporate these ten tips to strengthen your relationships with them and become the best guide for them that you possibly can.